Saving lives with proper fire door maintenance and annual fire door inspections

While many of us probably don't think about fire door maintenance.  There are actually codes, regulations, and guidelines that should be followed in order to ensure the building is, in fact, fire safe.  However, many of these are not inspected often or regularly.  The doors might be installed properly upon the first building inspection but over time, the doors will have maintenance done. This could be something as simple as taking it down to paint or stain.  Taking the door down will mean that the door might not be put back the same way it was found. This could change many things on the door such as the hardware may not be installed correctly or the door might not be correctly adjusted to maintain the required gaps around the door and thus making it a fire hazard. 

These regulations were put into place to keep everyone safe that is inside. Doors can actually prohibit fire from spreading into certain rooms.  These will slow the spread and save lives.  This is very important in buildings in which people live and sleep in, such as hotels or apartment complexes.  These sorts of buildings are prone to fires due to cooking or smoking inside.  While most of us don't think about a door being protection against fire, they really are very important and annual fire door inspections make sure that the fire doors continue to protect and save lives.  

Other things that are important that should be checked more frequently are sprinklers.  In fact, it is known that people have lost their lives due to not having the proper doors and sprinklers installed and in place as they should be.  

Fire safety doors

Today we are going to look at a scenario that we find all the time in articles circulating on the web regarding fires due to improper installation of doors, doors having damage, and sprinkler system failures.  If you want, you can browse around and you will find too that this is a very common problem that is easily preventable.

There was a fire that broke out in a high-rise fire that killed five people in Minneapolis.  This happened around 3:56 am on a Wednesday in 2019.  It was on the 14th floor of the building and five people were killed as a result of missing sprinklers and messed up doors.  The building was a 25 story building that is located just east of Minneapolis' downtown area.  It is constructed of concrete originally.  There are approximately 192 apartments found within this building.  The building has two elevator shafts down the center of it and a staircase as well.  

Phase 1 and Phase 2 of Elevator operation during a fire.

Elevators are made to function differently during a fire. There are two set functions called Phase 1 and Phase 2 in multistory buildings.  These taller buildings are hard for firefighters to navigate.  This is why it is encouraged that they use the elevators.  However, during phase 1 of the elevators, they return to their designated story and lock themselves out.  This means that they will not move or respond to people pushing the buttons.  This ensures the safety of the residents and keeps them from accidentally going through the flames.

However, in phase 2 of the elevator lock-out, the firefighters can override phase 1 to ensure that they can get close to the fire quickly.  These fires in tall buildings make it hard for firefighters to get close.  

It would be impossible for firefighters to get to the fires on the 14th floor with their fire hoses and all the equipment.  That's why in most buildings there are fire stations that are called standpipes.  These standpipes allow the firemen to bring the water to the fire in a safe manner.  Typically the firemen will get close to the fire floor and then take the stairs and prepare the fight the fire with the standpipe.  

Standpipe and scissor stairs during a fire.

With the standpipe being in the stairway, there is concern that it will contaminate the stair enclosure.  This is why there are what we call scissor stairs.  A scissor stair will provide 2 vertical means of egress.  We talk about scissor stairs because this will become important later on.  Basically, it is a stairway that goes up and down from the same platform or landing.  They are a very common style of stairway that you find in many apartments, hospitals, hotels, and other tall buildings.

Smoke Detector locations

For this particular fire, there were smoke detectors in the stairways, halls, and other common places.  These detected the fire and the alarms were set off on the floor that contained the fire as well as the floor above and below it.  These seemed to be installed properly and correctly.  However, at one point there were hand pull fire alarms, but this goes along with code.  At the time of the fire, the automatic alarms were to be installed at the common spaces and egress corridors, those landings on the scissor stairs, for those that get confused with the word "egress".  

The systems were also to have detection in the laundry area, furnace rooms, boiler rooms, interior corridors, and common areas.  The safety regulations only require a manual pull at the fire alarm control panel.  

All smoke detectors that are required for this type of building were present at the time of the fire that killed 5 people.  There are smoke detectors in all the common areas and areas that need to have them.  However, there were also smoke detectors inside each apartment, but those are not hooked into the main fire alarm system.  

Fire alarm systems

What is interesting is that the fire alarm system was upgraded in 2019, the same year as the fire.  According to the system and witnesses, the fire alarms did their job properly and there was not failure.  However, there was not a working sprinkler system found within the floors, this was only done on the basement floor.  

The floors had fire stations on each floor and it appears the very same set up on each floor along with fire extinguishers.  The standpipe is connected to the municipal water supply through the basement's mechanical room where you will find a pump that has a 500 gallons per minute rating.  This feeds the hoses but not any of the sprinklers.  

It was determined that there were no smoke removal devices installed in this building.  It probably wasn't required at the time of building.   

The fire that killed 5 people in Minneapolis started in apartment 1407 and was about 480 square feet with a living area, bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom.  It was determined that the fire started in the bedroom.  

The building was designed around a core that contains the stairs and elevator shafts. This is a very common set up really.  The doors to the corridors and vertical spaces such as the stairs should have a 1 hour burn time, meaning they will offer protection for up to 1 hour before they start to fall into the flames.  It appears the doors could have done that.  But the door to the corridor from the room was open at the time of the fire.  

Why was the door open?

Someone had put a seal on the bottom of the room's door. Why it was put there is unknown but that seal would drag on the carpeting and get stuck.  This seal was installed after the building was built.  Because this door was open the spread of the heat entered the corridor and eventually the scissor stairway.  Scissor stairways are no longer used in newer buildings today for this reason.  The heat likes to travel up and up into the vertical stairways and is where it rushes too.  There is now a fire safety wall that is put in place so that there are divided paths.

The door in question had a self-sealing hinge installed on it, but it couldn't work properly and was held open by the seal.  This wasn't caught because annual fire door inspections are not in the budget.  Therefore, they are not required any longer. They were, at one time, required and probably would have saved these 5 people's lives.  While the building is supposed to maintain these doors in accordance with the NFPA 80 and NFPA 105, there aren't any ramifications for not.  They also are not caught through inspections.  

The door being open played into the fatalities as well as additional property damage that could have been easily prevented.  

The flames and smoke were too much.

Four out of the five people were found on the 14th floor. It is determined that the heat and smoke on that floor had to be intense rather quickly.  Manual firefighting is very hard to do on a highrise, which is why having sprinklers installed is really important but again, they are not mandatory.  The corridors of the 14th floor were quickly engulfed.  Residents on that floor that would have tried to escape would have had a hard time doing so.  

Many places practice having the corridor doors propped open for whatever reason. However, this is very dangerous.  This practice should be stopped immediately.  Had that door not had the seal put on that would prop it open, it is thought that the door would have contained the fire within that one apartment and not taken over so much of the area. 

The importance of fire-rated doors in high-rise buildings.

This demonstrates the importance of a fire-rated door installation.  They should be inspected to ensure that the door is in fact closing as it should.  Many times, for example, people will rent hotel rooms and flip over the latch at the top to keep the door from fully sealing. This is a dangerous move should a fire break out in that room.  It is also dangerous should there be a fire in another room.  The practice of propping open doors should be discontinued.  These are very dangerous situations that don't allow a good outcome.  The can be seen and is fully demonstrated with this Minneapolis situation.  

Lives were lost that could have been prevented by proper inspections.  Fire inspections are very important!  We must fight the fight and continue to educate people on how important a fire-rated door actually is.  They shouldn't be fighting the natural closing hinge to keep the door closed as it is for their safety.  While these types of doors make it hard to get into rooms, it is a small inconvenience to saving your life.

All this talk about stairwells.  There are other aspects that we need to consider as well and that's ADA compliance of our buildings.  ADA compliance is something that we also offer assistance with, along with fire inspections.  

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