Fire doors and compliance in multi-family installations

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Fire doors and compliance in multi-family installations

A February fire in New York City reminds us of the importance of code-compliant fire door assemblies and the need to enforce fire door inspections mandated by applicable codes and standards.

In February 2022, one of the most devastating fires in New York history occurred in a 19-story, 120-unit apartment building in the Bronx, killing 17 people and injuring 44. Reports confirm that the fire started in an apartment, where an electric heater ignited a mattress; the open door to the apartment allowed the smoke to spread. Firefighters and other emergency services quickly arrived on the scene, but found residents throughout the building suffering from smoke inhalation.

Unfortunately, fires in multi-family residential buildings are not uncommon. February fire in New York reminds us of the importance of code compliance fire door sets and the need to enforce fire door inspections mandated by applicable codes and standards.

Lori Green
Manager, Codes and Resources
Allegation

In this Q&A feature with School managerLori Greene, Codes and Resources Manager at Allegationprovides an insightful overview of the importance of fire doors in multi-family installations, illustrating the impact with real-life examples, referencing codes, and offering guidance to facility managers to ensure compliance.

What role do fire door assemblies play in preventing the spread of fires in a building?

Certain walls in a building are required by code to resist the spread of fire for a certain period of time. These walls make it possible to compartmentalize the building into separate zones and to protect the escape routes. For example, the walls surrounding an individual apartment in a multi-family building will generally be fire partitions designed and constructed to prevent the spread of smoke and flames for an hour or half an hour. Fire barriers also surround stairwells, where they help protect stairs during a fire to allow building occupants to evacuate safely.

Many of these firewalls have openings, such as the front door between the hallway and an apartment. JFire door assemblies in these walls are called “opening guards” because they are designed to provide some level of fire protection for the opening. Building codes and fire codes specify the required length of time that these assemblies must resist the passage of smoke and flame – from 20 minutes to 3 hours depending on the level of protection required. Assemblies are tested by a test facility such as Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Intertek to ensure they perform as expected.

Are there examples of past fires in multi-family buildings where fire doors have had an effect on the outcome?

According to a report 2021 from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), approximately 86,000 fires occurred in apartment buildings in the United States in 2020, resulting in 350 civilian deaths, 2,900 civilian injuries and $1.6 billion in property damage. This represents an average of 236 apartment fires per day across the country.

Fire door
This photo is from an apartment building, where an open front door allowed fire to spread through the hallway, compromising means of egress from neighboring apartments. (Scott Strassburg, City of Madison Fire Department)

Unfortunately, many sets of fire doors (including those serving apartment entrances), may become out of code over time. Although they should have been self-closing and self-latching when installed, if not maintained properly they may no longer function as designed and tested. There have been many examples of past fires where fire doors remained open when apartment residents fled, instead of automatically closing and locking as required by codes and standards. An open fire door offers no protection during a fire.

The recent fire in an apartment in the Bronx left 17 dead, including 8 children, and 44 injured. As with many fires in multi-family residential buildings, reports confirms that the fire started in an apartment and that the open fire door at the entrance to the apartment allowed the smoke to spread. The FDNY reported that an open stair door at an upper level of the high-rise building caused a “chimney effect” – similar to a chimney – and pulled smoke up through the stairwell. If these doors had been closed, the smoke and fire could have been contained in the apartment. According to NFPA, most deaths in fires are caused by smoke inhalation, so containing smoke is key to reducing fire deaths and injuries.

Recent apartment fires have drawn attention to the condition of fire doors in multi-family buildings. Can you explain how annual inspections of fire door assemblies are conducted and if they are required by code?

Countless existing fire door assemblies in the United States are no longer code compliant and may not protect openings in fire rated walls as required by code. Building owners and facility managers are responsible for the proper functioning of their fire door assemblies, but these issues are often overlooked until a fire occurs and the fire doors cannot not do their job.

Fire door
The fire door pictured, closed and locked when the fire occurred, prevented the fire from spreading beyond the hallway, allowing residents in other parts of the building to escape. (Scott Strassburg, City of Madison Fire Department)

NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives is referenced by pattern codes, and this standard contains detailed information on fire door assemblies. In the 2007 edition, a section was added to the NFPA 80 standard that included prescriptive requirements for the annual inspection of fire doors. These mandates have been revised in subsequent editions of the standard, and NFPA 80 now requires that fire rated swing doors be inspected after installation and after maintenance work, as well as once a year. If defects are found, repairs must be carried out without delay.

How can facility managers ensure their fire doors are up to code?

Criteria included in NFPA 80 specify what should be checked during a fire door inspection and other information that should be documented. Many facility managers hire a fire door inspector to perform these inspections, but the standard does not require the inspections to be performed by a third-party inspector. The fire door inspector must be a “qualified person” with an understanding of fire door assemblies; qualifications can be demonstrated by possession of a diploma, certificate, professional status or skill.

During a fire door assembly inspection, the NFPA 80 standard requires the verification of 13 criteria:

  1. Labels on fire doors and frames must be clearly visible and legible.
  2. There should be no holes or breaks in the surfaces of the door or frame.
  3. If the door or frame has a vision light, sidelight or transom, the glazing, vision light frames and glass beads must be intact and the correct type installed.
  4. All components of the assembly – the door, frame, hinges, hardware and noncombustible threshold (if applicable) – must be secure, aligned and in good working order with no damage.
  5. No part of the fire door must be missing or broken.
  6. Clearances around the perimeter of the door and between the active leaves of a pair of doors must comply with NFPA 80.
  7. The door must be self-closing, self-closing, or electrically operated, and the door must close when released from the open position.
  8. Some pairs of doors must have coordinators that allow the doors to close and latch in the correct order.
  9. Fire doors should have positive-locking hardware, so the doors lock when in the closed position.
  10. The assembly must not have auxiliary hardware elements that interfere with the operation of the door.
  11. Components of the fire door assembly must not have been altered in a way that voids the label.
  12. Not all fire doors are required to have a gasket, but if so, the gasket must be intact and listed for use on a fire door assembly.
  13. Signage on fire doors must meet the allowable limits of NFPA 80, with respect to material, size and means of attachment.

Fire door inspections are an important tool for building owners, facility managers, and code officials to help ensure that every fire door assembly will function properly during a fire. Documentation of inspections should be made available to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), similar to other types of inspections such as those that document the condition of automatic sprinkler systems, stove hoods and fire extinguishers. Fires in multi-family residential buildings will continue to occur, but periodic inspection of fire door assemblies and addressing any deficiencies found will reduce property damage and save lives.

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