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September 24, 2017

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Fire doors: The post-Grenfell rush to improve fire safety

With Fire Door Safety Week kicking off next week, SHP sister title, IFSEC Global caught up with the campaign’s spokesperson to find out how the Grenfell tragedy has affected the campaign.

Also technical manager of the British Woodworking Federation, Hannah Mansell reflects on the campaign’s growth, message and plans, the temptation for cutting corners in cash-strapped times, the need for coordination across the supply chain and the challenge of keeping fire safety on the media and government agenda long after the charred remnants of Grenfell Tower are demolished in 2018.

Hannah also heads up the BWF’s stair and BWF-CERTIFIRE schemes.

IFSEC Global: You’ve been growing rapidly year on year? What do you think the reasons are?

Hannah Mansell: We think it’s probably about simplicity.

Fire doors are technically complex products and people overlook them for that fact; they’re simply not on people’s radar. So our job is to get out there and keep the message simple.

What they need to know is simple. Your fire doors need to be properly tested and made, maintained, and of course, not left open.

Support for the campaign is wide, in all areas of fire safety. Although our message is fire doors, we develop resources and guidance for many different sectors, whether it’s the responsible person, the construction industry, fire risk assessors, or tenants and users.

Each campaign has a legacy that we carry on the next year.

So for instance last year, we were already focusing on shared accommodation and the rental sector. We realised our work wasn’t done in that sector, which has obviously been highlighted by what’s happened in the last three months.

Since the tragedy there’s been a high influx of new supporters in the sector. Councils have come on massively this year, housing associations, charities, landlord associations… To be fair the landlord associations have always been quite good supporters.

“The value engineering of specification, when someone says ‘I can cut a few corners and save you a few quid’, is a really big problem”

And the fire brigades as well. We worked closely with London Fire Brigade last year, and this year they’re doing more and going even further.

All our resources can be taken and rolled out into any particular organisation or campaign.

We’ve made a new fire door safety test film (see below). The last film we made, maybe five or six years ago, had massive traction.

The new film is a bit more contemporary, focused on issues we commonly see on fire doors in common areas and with flat front doors – doors without seals, doors without proper closers… We talk about things like smoke seals and intumescent seals, but a lot of people don’t know what they look like.

Also our five-step check, which we also included in the film visually shows what you need to look for, and if you have any concerns, talk to your landlord or building owner. If you still have concerns, the next step is to talk to your local fire brigade who can come out and audit your building.

I think in some sectors people have woken up to fire door safety, but it’s an ongoing thing. People forget quite quickly. It may not be long until we’re disregarding fire safety again.

IG: Nature of the beast, really. Easy to get complacent when fire is such a rare thing. Any other reasons why there are apparently so many inadequate fire doors?

HM: We’re not dealing with issues that have arisen in these buildings in the last 3-5 years; we’re often dealing with decades of neglect of both fire doors and other fire safety systems and elements, with no one taking enough notice of them, these issues and accountability for them dropping out of sight of these responsible.

We did some research a few years ago and one of the questions was: “What do you think about your fire doors?” A deafening silence came back. People were walking past and through them every day and not thinking about their importance.

So a lot of our campaign is about outlining the steps: here’s your fire door, next step is how to check it, next step is how to report it, here’s how to maintain it etc.

“With the force of people coming together you can get change, but too much of the fire sector has worked in siloes”

The value engineering of specification, when someone says “I can cut a few corners and save you a few quid”, is a really big problem. Specification is broken, certification invalidated and there’s no proof that the product will work.

You can have someone offering to bang in a door like they would fit any old door, not realising that the installation of a fire door is as critical as the product itself.

People think a fire door is just like any other door. In the early days, when I first got into fire doors and was doing a lot of research and development and testing, I was surprised how the tiniest of details can have a massive impact.

For instance, an excessive gap around the door or forgotten intumescent protection or seals – how much is that going to affect performance during the fire? You’d be surprised.

In part of the fire door film we’ve made this year, we’ve set up a correctly fitted door versus one that’s got some issues that I commonly find on site. But the bad door looks exactly the same from the outside. It’s all about those tiny details – compatible components, the frame, the installation etc.

Even with a perfect product, installed correctly, if it’s not maintained effectively, and it’s not closing against its frame or if it gets wedged open etc… When the time comes it’s just not going to work.

Of course, if it’s wedged open, there’s no barrier to even delay the fire.

Fire doors are also in your face. If I go to a building and see that they have shoddy fire doors, it’s a pretty good indicator for me that whoever is responsible for the fire safety of the building isn’t taking their responsibility seriously.

Interesting that you mentioned value engineering, because cash-strapped councils are being asked to upgrade fire safety in social housing with no extra funding from government

HM: I think what they have to consider is that in some cases they are looking at having to pay for decades’ worth of neglect.

Concerns about a wide range of passive fire safety issues including fire doors have been reported for years, in all types of buildings, both public and private sector, you can look back over meeting minutes 10-15 years ago when these issues were being raised.

There needs to be a long-term holistic plan. It can’t just be completing one task or dealing with one element of fire safety, then it’s over and dealt with and forgotten about. The risk profile of buildings is constantly changing.

In some sectors there’s a realisation about that. But in other sectors…

We got this report in from one of our BWF members. They had refused to supply a contract and product for a large TMO for fire door upgrades because the customer wanted to break specification and didn’t give a monkeys about it.

That’s why we need to keep up the pace of not just this campaign but the other campaigns and organisations that we work with, like the Fire Kills campaign.

That’s maybe what people like about the campaign: we don’t make it exclusive. It doesn’t matter if you’re specifically into fire doors or just someone who wants to support the campaign – there’s something for everyone in there.

With the force of people coming together you can get change, but too much of the fire sector has worked in siloes. A holistic approach might get change. Coupled of course with massive budget cuts…

I could give you a list as long as my arm of all the factors explaining why we sit here wondering how such a horrific thing could have happened.

IG: Are there many instances where you could remedy a fire-door’s deficiencies rather than having to replace the fire door altogether?

HM: Lots of people get worried that they’ll have to buy a new fire door. But regular inspection and maintenance help to keep them in good working order.

You can replace or adjust components, fix things before they became a major problem.

Don’t get me wrong, there are limitations. A door can be in such a state of disrepair that you can’t fix it.

That’s why it comes back to having a thorough and robust maintenance regime to make sure you do enough to fix problems before they turn into something irretrievable.

“A fire door fitted with components suitable for a domestic setting isn’t going to last long in the communal corridor of a school”

There are qualified fire door inspectors who can inspect a door, look at every element – the frame, the installation, the ironmongery, the glazing, the door leaf, the seals, the gaps – and notify the responsible person of improvements needed.

One of our colleagues in the ironmongery industry did a specification for a hospital years ago. Usually hospital fire doors get battered; they can be used thousands of times a day.

Twenty-six years later, because specifications for that environment and users were right, and they are regularly inspected, these doors are still going strong – they would do their job in a fire.

If you fit a fire door that’s designed and fitted with components suitable for a domestic setting into a communal corridor of a school, it not going to last very long. That’s why the specification is so critical.

Lots of people don’t think about the whole supply chain; it’s “I’ve done my bit,” pass it onto the next person. It’s a chain of responsibility.

Fire doors are not the most interesting dinner party topic, but they play such an important role – especially in buildings because of complex design, the specific needs of occupants, or if it’s difficult to evacuate quickly and there is a ‘stay-put’ fire plan.

You need fire and smoke control doors up and down corridors and stairwells. It protects the means of escape and route for firefighters to get into the building. It includes flat front doors as well.

You will also find fire doors in other parts of the building, and sometimes inside individual dwellings, depending on the layout and building types, as well as a number of other factors.

IG: Do you think the regulations themselves need clarification or strengthening?

HM: My real day job is not just doing the fire door safety campaign. I’m the technical manager of the British Woodworking Federation (BWF).

Our members make and certificate about 2.5 million timber fire doors every year, but our organisation frequently provides technical guidance about a wide variety of timber construction products and how they relate to building regulations and building control. People often don’t understand how they work; it can be a minefield.

I know we’re going to have a review of building regulations, but it’s been on the agenda for many years and it’s far, far overdue.

And I’m not just talking about Approved Document B. We’ve got building regs that apply to new buildings, regs about refurbishment or change of use, about surrounding fire risk assessments, about the signing off of work process, the whole regulatory reform order, which came in 10 years ago and changed the responsibility and  process of ‘signing off’ compliance.

“We could sit here in five years’ time and have a very similar discussion – unless people take heed of the scale of the problem now”

These are all bits of regulation that need to work together, so it’s about an upgrade of regulations throughout the chain. I don’t think we can just be appeased with just an approved document review.

I think when the public are calling for a building regulation review, they’re talking about the whole process, not just documents that talk about fire safety in high rise buildings.

One thing really highlighted over the last few weeks is how many different parties get involved in the refurb, design, specifications, supply of products, construction, the signing off of buildings. There needs to be much more clarity as to how that chain works.

In the wake of Grenfell, the amount of fire safety issues reported in other buildings [has been huge], not just cladding. For instance, the Camden evacuation was because a thousand fire doors were missing.

When it comes to enforcing against large organisations, transparency is sometimes the issue when it goes through the courts. Who is the responsible person?

And in an enormous organisation with a massive housing stock, how detached are they from the scale or severity of fire safety issues in their buildings?

We live differently to how we lived even 10-15 years ago. Elderly people are much more likely to stay in their homes longer, more people live in high rise buildings, there are people with a wide variety of additional needs who may be more vulnerable to a fire in their building.

The regulations have to reflect that, and not just for the benefit of building more homes quickly, of questionable quality.

IG: Has Grenfell changed your message in any way given the greater media and public awareness of the issue?

HM: Fire Door Safety Week campaign has been going formally for five years. We’re as determined as we ever were, to carry on promoting our campaign and working with other campaigns and initiatives in these areas. Each year, stepping up and building on what we’ve done before, until we get real and lasting change.

I read an opinion piece that said it will take generations to get over Grenfell. We’ve got to keep this right up there [in the media] so we don’t have a repeat. We can’t let it be swept under the carpet or not acted upon in the fullest manner.

It’s like that poem isn’t it: “For want of a nail, the Kingdom was lost”. Your fire doors are almost your nails, as it were. All these little fire safety problems adding up together to create the perfect fire storm.

We need a new way of looking at fire safety. Otherwise we’ll do what we always did: an investigation and an inquest, and get what we always got, excuses why it can’t improve, and then sort of forget about it.

And the worst thing is we could sit here in five years’ time and have a very similar discussion – unless people take heed of the scale of the problem now.

There is the chance to really make building safe for generations to come.

IFSEC Global is proud to support Fire Door Safety Week, which runs from 25 September to 1 October.

You can pledge your support for the campaign here,  and by tweeting under the hashtag #FireDoorSafetyWeek and sharing or using the wealth of resources found in the campaign’s toolkit.

  • An original version of this article is available here.

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Alan Harris
Alan Harris
6 years ago

The guide to the”Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety )Order 2005 states “It does not apply to : peoples private homes.including flats in a block or house”
Is this still the case? Is there any regulation requiring entrance/exit doors to comply with the regulation in such premises?