Over a year after the British Standards Institution issued new advice on fire damper maintenance, this area of essential compliance is still not receiving the attention that it deserves – and indeed requires by law – warns Gary Nicholls, Managing Director of Swiftclean Building Services.
In carrying out fire damper maintenance we have discovered that a large number of building managers were unaware for some years that they actually had fire dampers installed in the properties for which they are responsible. Some inherited properties with lists of assets which neglected to include fire dampers entirely, others had lists which did include a number of fire dampers, but with no clue as to their type or location. Others have been handed incomplete lists which entirely underestimated the number of assets.
Fire damper maintenance advice under BS:9999 used to include recommendations for testing and maintenance based on the construction type of the fire damper itself; one type of fire damper required annual testing, while the other type could be tested less frequently, every two years. This could make devising a regular testing and maintenance programme more challenging, especially without the full details of the type and location of each fire damper. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that awareness of the issue as a whole has a lot of ground to make up, something that we, as a company, are trying hard to address.
Since the publication of BS:9999 2017, all fire dampers are required to be tested annually, using a method called drop testing, regardless of their type. Hopefully, this should make establishing a regular testing programme simpler and more manageable; however, more than a year on, many property managers are still playing catch up on this issue.
Fire dampers are a vital aspect of some buildings’ fire protection measures. In properties which have both internal fire resistance rated walls and mechanical ventilation systems, there are likely to be fire dampers. Wherever the ventilation ductwork runs through a fire-resistant wall, a potential weak point is created in the wall, leaving an opening through which fire can travel.
A fire damper is essentially a set of steel louvres which remain open for most of the time to allow air to circulate freely through the ventilation system, but which close automatically in the event of fire to create a barrier, delaying or even preventing the spread of fire. The drop testing method is designed to ensure that should a fire occur, the louvres will drop into the closed position, sealing the compartment formed by the fire-resistant wall. Typically, these are found where rooms lead off corridors with a fire-resistant wall, so are prevalent in buildings such as hotels, hospitals, offices, schools and halls of residence.
Our first visit to a new customer often reveals a history without regular testing. In some cases fire dampers have been installed in the wrong place, or not fixed securely, or occasionally, even upside down. These fire dampers will either not close in the even of a fire, or will not achieve compartmentalisation. Before being put into use, a ventilation system is usually tested to ensure that it has adequate air flow. In the past, engineers have clearly propped the fire damper’s louvres open for testing, then forgotten to remove the makeshift props. In the past we have found beer bottles, soft drinks cans, lumps of wood or pieces of string, forgotten after testing but preventing the fire damper from closing. Regular testing would have detected these hazards, but in many cases an accumulation of years of dust suggests that testing has never been carried out.
Fire prevention officers are now clamping down on fire damper testing, and this, while it means greater safety for buildings, also presents a new challenge. Fire damper testing is for many building managers, a new cost for which they must now budget. We are working with property owners and managers to provide phased testing as budget becomes available and to schedule testing for times when ventilation system cleaning is being carried out.
If your fire dampers are not yet being drop tested, cleaned and maintained annually, you need to establish a regular testing and maintenance schedule as soon as possible. This is a compliance necessity and should be a safety priority too. There are no two ways about it, fire damper testing cannot be put off indefinitely; both because it is a legal requirement and because, in the long run, lives may depend on it.
It really is high time to let fire dampers rise to the top of the to do list for every property manager.