A report was recently made to Cross UK about concerns that hatches for amenity access points may not be fire safe.
Retrospective fitting of various amenities including TV aerials, broadband and satellite connections may result in new access points being made in walls, ceilings or through floors. These openings need to be made good using a method that provides the required fire safety properties for that specific situation, including integrity, insulation and resistance to smoke spread.
The reporter stated that a broadband installer was using 'two-hour fire rated' hatches to make good ceilings in blocks of flats. It was also observed that the same hatches were being used in walls separating flats from the common areas, allowing access to services. The certification of these products indicated that they might only offer two hours of protection against 'E' integrity, but offers very little protection against 'I' insulation; in addition, they do not stop the passage of smoke. The case observed in the ceiling of the common area was in a timber-framed structure, where the ceiling was providing fire resistance to the timber structure, therefore this hatch should have the required EI values for the height of the building.
Similarly, the walls to the flats where the hatch had been fitted also required the correct EI values to ensure the correct fire resistance had been provided.
The hatches are widely used, and are being sold as two-hour fire rated hatches in the marketing literature, which requires the person installing them to both understand fire testing and the requirements of the building that it is being installed.
Such practise compromises the compartmentation of the ceiling and the walls, given how the reporter considers that heat and smoke can transfer between compartments as the correct insulation has failed to be installed.
The consequence of this is that in the event of a fire, smoke may affect the available means of escape, or heat may transfer into another compartment, spreading fire around the premises and potentially compromising the means of escape.
Key learning outcomes
The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 defines a responsible person who has to ensure that they use a competent professional to do the work.
When using a hatch to repair/make good an opening, ensure that the hatch meets the criteria necessary for the situation in which it is being used. The criteria can be found by checking with the appropriate fire safety information; if that is not available, the relevant technical guidance or the Responsible Person could be advised.
Hatches may be supplied that have been tested for a period of fire resistance in all or some of the terms of load-bearing capacity, integrity, and insulation. In some situations, the wall, ceiling or floor that this hatch will form a part of may also require integrity, insulation and to be able to resist the passage of smoke for a period which may differ from the specifications of the hatch.
What the experts say
This is recognised as a quite common situation. The initial cause of this, which is incomplete product information in the market literature, is also an issue with the performance characteristic of Reaction to Fire Class, or third-party accreditation.
Product labels should be unambiguously clear in what performance characteristic (R,E, or I) a particular product offers resistance against. Responsible suppliers give clear warnings and disclaimers about the limitations of the use of their products.
Simplified claims of a time performance according to a specific standardised test without any reference to the criterion tested sound technical but can be misleading. These claims go against the cultural change needed in the construction industry, as was mentioned in the Dame Judith Hackitt’s Building Safety Review.
The choice of an appropriate product can be complicated further because when making alterations through a ceiling or other compartment boundary, any access panel needs to satisfy all the requirements of that compartment additional to fire, which are set out in other Approved Documents, usually for acoustics and structural needs.
These issues of unsuitable products are regularly identified by the Fire and Rescue Service when auditing, considering this report as an extension of the common 'fire rated foam' problem.
The core issue is that the breaching of fire compartmentation, caused by fixings through plasterboard walls or other construction, is a major issue that can undermine the fire strategy of buildings and appropriate care should be given.