The importance of fire door maintenance

Douglas Masterson, Technical Manager for the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers, discusses the importance, specification, inspection and maintenance of fire doors

Fire safety is of paramount importance in any building, no matter its intended purpose, age or location. Building designers, engineers, architects, inspectors and owners all have a part to play in ensuring that buildings and their occupants are as safe as possible.

To achieve maximum safety, we need to know what a fire door does, what architectural ironmongery should be fitted to it, and how it should be maintained to ensure safety and compliance.

Fire doors play a large part in a building’s safety, passively protecting occupants by creating compartments that fire struggles to pass. These compartments also feature walls and ceilings that can resist fire for the same period of time as the fire doors, for example 30 or 60 minutes.

Once fire doors are closed, they provide a seal that stops any fire and smoke from spreading, creating a safe and protected escape route for the building’s occupants as well as protection for emergency services entering to tackle the blaze. Fire doors must be installed to replicate their test conditions – which also applies to everything fitted to the door, such as the ironmongery and hardware. Improper fitting will also nullify any third-party certification or CE/UKCA marking, meaning the door may not meet safety regulations.

Most buildings use three types of fire doors: keep shut; keep locked; and automatic. The first two are self-explanatory, and should be kept shut or locked for most of the time. However, automatic fire doors are usually held open or swing freely, but revert into a self-closing mode when a fire alarm is triggered. Nothing must be left in the path of automatic doors that could prevent them closing in an emergency.

Getting a handle

A fire door can only perform to its maximum effectiveness if it is fitted with certain types of hardware. All doors need three core elements – hinges, a closing mechanism, and a lock or latch to ensure the door stays shut and secure. These three items are so critical that they must be individually CE/UKCA marked on any newly constructed building.

Most fire doors will also feature additional hardware, such as pull or lever handles, and signage – which is always blue and white with wording to match the type of door.

However, one of the most important pieces of additional hardware are intumescent seals, which play a vital role on any timber fire door. Fires can cause hot and dangerous gases to filter through gaps around the edges of a door, but intumescent seals are designed to prevent this. The seals often have a plastic or metal casing and are fitted to the door’s edges. When heated, the seals expand to fill the space between the door and the frame, significantly reducing the amount of gas able to leak through.

Inspecting a fire door

Given their vital role, the condition of every fire door must be considered as part of any building’s fire risk assessment. However, inspection is not as simple as checking that fire doors open and close effectively.

Fire doors are complex assemblies of door, frame, glazing and hardware. Only when all these elements are working harmoniously do they provide the protection required, which makes inspecting fire doors a far from simple task. Therefore, we recommend that all fire door inspections are carried out by a person who fully understands the Building Regulations, as well as the British and European standards.

Alarmingly, Fire Door Inspection Scheme data, based on more than 100,000 inspections the organisation made in 2021, found that 75 per cent of fire doors failed to meet the required standards. A significant proportion of these had excessive gaps between the door and the frame – BS 8214 states that a typical gap for good fire performance is 2mm-4mm.

Furthermore, building owners failing to comply with the regulations can be prosecuted, fined and potentially jailed. Recent prosecutions have been severe – even for seemingly minor infringements, such as leaving fire doors wedged open.

It’s therefore obvious that the benefits of proper inspection far outweigh the potential consequences. For example, it brings confirmation that fire doors are compliant and will perform as designed, helps prolong the life of the door, and helps identify any remedial work needed.

Maintenance and work

According to the Regulatory (Fire Safety) Reform Order (RRO), which came into effect in October 2006 in England and Wales, all critical items should be maintained at regular intervals. The RRO states that the person responsible for the building should regularly inspect all equipment that ensures the safety of its occupants – this of course applies to fire doors and their hardware.

Once inspection is complete, any maintenance needed should be carried out promptly. Most door hardware is built to last a long time, so typically any necessary intervention will be cost-effective and quick to perform.

For example, typical hinge maintenance usually includes replacing missing fixings, checking for wear and ensuring the door hasn’t dropped. All these are easily repaired and updated.

Specifications and skills

When asking someone to specify fire door hardware, it is important that they have the appropriate skills, knowledge and experience, and are up to date on the relevant legislation and regulations.

This is where building engineers should consider using Registered Architectural Ironmongers (RegAIs). A RegAI is a fully qualified professional who has passed the Guild of Architectural Ironmongers (GAI) diploma and continues to complete our annual CPD programme. They can provide clear demonstration of competence at a time when this is more relevant than ever following the publication of the Building Safety Act.

More importantly, RegAIs bring many years of experience as to what actually works in practice when different components are assembled into a door system. For instance, specifying the right strength of a closer mechanism has a huge impact on balancing the need to keep a door closed for fire protection while still enabling a diverse range of users to open the door without undue effort.

Fully controlled by the GAI, the RegAI scheme offers the assurance that building engineers will be dealing with professionals who are fully aware of the latest regulations, industry standards and products. RegAI represents the highest possible standard of education and professionalism in the architectural ironmongery sector.

Ultimately, building engineers will be able to create a meaningful strategy to ensure any fire doors they are working with are specified, installed, maintained and operating at peak efficiency.

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