Maintaining safety, saving lives

Maintaining safety, saving lives

Appropriate training for maintenance staff and third party certification schemes can help to ensure that passive fire protection systems continue to play the vital life safety role for which they are designed, says Peter Barker

Maintenance plays an essential role in ensuring the longevity of a building and providing a safe and pleasant environment in which people can live and work.

Depending on the size and type of the building and its use, maintenance activities may be carried out by a single individual, such as a caretaker, or by a dedicated estates department.  Occasionally, a specialist may be called upon to maintain a particular installation, often as part of an on-going contract.

Unfortunately, despite playing a vital life safety role, passive fire protection is rarely seen as a specialist system. It seems that because it is incorporated within the structure of the building, the owner/occupier often assumes that it will continue to provide the necessary fire performance long after construction is complete.

This assumption leads to three main problems: the maintenance of passive fire protection normally falls under general building maintenance duties; subsequent installations that breach compartment walls are often not recognised as affecting the fire resistance performance of the building; and finally, supporting test evidence for the various passive fire protection systems installed within the building is seldom retained or passed on to the eventual building owner.

The role of passive fire protection

Passive fire protection is built into the fabric of a building, in the form of walls, floors, ceilings, beams, columns, screens, doors and shutters. It performs four essential life safety functions within the built environment. These are listed in Approved Document B of the Building Regulations in England & Wales as providing:

  1. Stability to a building, so that in the event of a fire it will remain stable for a reasonable period (to facilitate means of escape)
  2. Resistance to the spread of fire between buildings (to protect occupants in an adjacent building)
  3. Sub division of a building in order to limit the size of a compartment fire (to facilitate means of escape)
  4. Resistance to the unseen spread of fire and smoke within concealed spaces within the building (to facilitate means of escape)

In addition to ensuring the health and safety of people in and around buildings, passive fire protection also offers protection to the building and the assets and businesses within it. In fact, insurers often require passive fire protection measures that exceed those required as a minimum by Approved Document B.

If installed correctly, passive fire protection systems will provide the necessary level of fire resistance. However, if these elements of construction are not maintained or repaired correctly their fire resistance performance will be quickly, and sometimes dramatically, compromised.

Certain elements of construction, such as a masonry walls or timber or steel structures, will remain untouched throughout the life of the structure and so will provide a similar level of fire resistance performance as when they were first constructed. But other elements of construction which are subjected to daily use or are in a position through which new services are likely to pass will suffer damage and require repair.

It is primarily for this reason that it is important to have a suitable system of maintenance and repair for passive fire protection, which is carried out by personnel that have the necessary skills and experience.

Maintaining fire safety

In order to ensure that elements of building construction meet the required levels of fire performance, they are tested against the relevant British or European test standard under standardised test conditions. This often involves a rigorous programme of research, fire testing and development. The test standards are designed to investigate the fire performance of the different elements of building construction against fully developed fire conditions and it is this performance that is deemed to satisfy the necessary requirements of the Building Regulations.

Once construction is complete and the building is occupied, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRFSO) is the legislation that applies. The RRFSO places responsibility for ensuring the safety of people in and around the building on the responsible person who must conduct a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment. This must identify the risks and the people at risk within a building and evaluate the fire safety provisions against the current condition and, importantly, the current use and occupancy of the building.

Furthermore, under article 17 of the RRFSO, the responsible person must ensure that any facilities and equipment provided for the purpose of fire safety must be subject to a suitable system of maintenance and repair. . It would therefore be reasonable to expect a responsible person (as defined by the RRFSO) to require maintenance personnel to be able to demonstrate competence in terms of the definition provided in the RRFSO.

But aside from any legal duties, it makes sense that any fire safety measures required for a building are maintained by competent personnel, as this will help to ensure the systems will perform as required and expected.

Lack of knowledge

Since passive fire protection falls under the banner of general construction, it is often assumed that members of an estates department or a caretaker with joinery or building experience will be able to maintain the passive fire protection in a suitable state of repair.

While estates and maintenance personnel may have the necessary ability and skills to carry out basic maintenance on a range of passive fire protection systems, a lack of knowledge of the systems and how they work may mean that some of the techniques being applied may be ineffective or even make matters worse.

For example, someone without appropriate knowledge could replace a glazing seal with an intumescent designed for use as a perimeter seal for a door leaf. Although a seemingly innocuous detail, due to the high-pressure forming capabilities of most door edge seals, this could actually force the glazing beads off in a fire situation, leading to a premature integrity failure and potentially compromising the means of escape.

Furthermore, maintenance personnel are often required to ensure that passive protection measures continue to meet current British test standards; for example BS 476: Part 22:1987, one of the test standards for non-load bearing elements such as doors.

A suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment should identify fire safety provisions and would be expected to incorporate a floor plan identifying compartment lines and the necessary passive fire protection measures. It should also supply details of the level of fire resistance that the passive fire protection should offer and should have ascertained whether it is suitable for the risk, occupancy and use of the building, or whether it needs to be replaced or improved.

While this information does not provide documented evidence of the fire resistance performance for a particular part of the building construction, it does indicate that the element needs to be capable of a certain level of fire resistance.

When the supporting test evidence for the passive fire protection measures is available, it can be maintained against a known specification, which helps to identify whether the item in question has been altered since it was first installed.

However, since this information is seldom available, any judgement on the suitability of the item of passive fire protection will need to be made by a suitably qualified third party. This may well be the risk assessor, or another suitably qualified expert, such as a representative from a UKAS-accredited laboratory that carries out testing on similar items of construction.  But, in the absence of expert judgement, the task will often fall to the maintenance personnel, who are unlikely to have the necessary expertise.

Since, ultimately, it will be the responsible person that will need to demonstrate due diligence when it comes to implementing a suitable programme of maintenance and repair, reliance on individuals who may not have the necessary expertise is likely to have pitfalls.

Typical alterations may include the addition of security hardware to fire doors, the replacement of glass within a fire-rated screen with non-rated glass; or the addition of pipes and services through a compartment wall without adequate fire stopping. These could have a significant impact on the performance of the system in the event of a fire.

If a maintenance programme is implemented in the absence of supporting test evidence or expert third party judgement, there is the very real risk that the performance will be maintained at existing levels. This could either be close to that when it was installed, or it could be lower. In the worst case, something could be maintained as fire-resisting when in actual fact it has no tested fire resistance performance at all.

The absence of documented supporting test evidence for fire resisting construction has been recognised and measures to address it incorporated within the Building Regulations in the form of regulation 38 (formerly 16B). This regulation, contained within appendix G of Approved Document B, calls for information on the fire safety provisions and systems incorporated within a new building (or one that has undergone a significant alteration) to be documented and handed over to the building owner on completion.

The intention of this regulation is to help the responsible person fulfil their duties in terms of fire risk assessment under the RRFSO. Information on fire safety systems, including passive fire protection, is obviously of great benefit to maintenance personnel.

However, the lack of supporting information remains a challenge within the current building stock.

Demonstrating competence

Having highlighted why it is important that maintenance personnel should have the necessary skills to carry out work to a good standard, the question now is how they should demonstrate competence?

Experience in the field is essential. However, demonstrating competence should also take into account appropriate training. Having an appropriate level of training is especially important in the field of fire resistance. This is due to the number of different systems and products available, the importance of correct detailing and installation and the fundamental role such systems play in terms of life safety.

Third party certification schemes for installation and maintenance providers offer a means of demonstrating competence, since individuals are required to attend a training course, pass an examination and have their work scrutinised by an independent third party. Third party certification can thus offer the highest possible level of confidence, and demonstrates due diligence on behalf of the responsible person.

Fire resisting doors

BM TRADA has developed a Q-Mark fire door maintenance scheme. The scheme takes into consideration the needs of an in-house estates department, as well as those of independent fire safety specialists and fire door manufacturers and installers that want to offer an on-going maintenance contract as part of an overall package.

Fundamental to the scheme is maintaining the fire doors against a confirmed fire rating, whether confidence in the performance of the door is confirmed against test evidence, or against a third party opinion provided by a fire risk assessor or other suitably qualified expert.

The scheme provides a mechanism for logging all of the fire doors in a building with individual references, as may be used by existing preventative maintenance programmes. Against each of the doors, the maintenance personnel are provided with a set of approved repair techniques which have been independently assessed and/or tested by BM TRADA

The approved repair techniques cover the most common defects seen with fire resisting doors and provide a third party approved method for re-instating the performance of the door.

The scheme also provides the maintenance personnel with tools for identifying doors that are unlikely to have fire resistance. These may have been introduced since the building was signed off or are now in a position that would require a fire-rated performance, due to a change in use of the building. While it is hoped that such doors would be identified in the fire risk assessment, this approach provides an additional level of due diligence that is intended to prevent a non-rated door from being maintained as a fire door with proven performance.

How to qualify

There are a number of stages to work through before qualifying as a registered fire door maintainer. The applicant must first attend the BM TRADA Fire Doors Explained course, followed by the Q-Mark Fire Door Installation course, which includes an examination. The Q-Mark Fire Door Maintenance scheme does not require an applicant to become third party certified for installation, but they must have attended the necessary training and passed the examination to proceed. The final stage involves attending the BM TRADA Q-Mark Fire Door Maintenance course, and passing an additional examination.

The applicant will also be audited against the work that they have carried out, to check that the techniques have been applied correctly and the paperwork that supports the maintenance programme is correctly completed, providing the responsible person with the necessary information.

Going forward it is hoped that by employing third party certified personnel for carrying out maintenance duties, the fire doors will have a longer service life; the costs for repair and replacement will be reduced; and most importantly the doors will provide the necessary fire resistance should they ever need to do so.

Peter Barker is Senior Consultant, Fire at BM TRADA