Ventilation duct systems may be out of sight but should never be out of mind when it comes to fire prevention says Dermott Quinn MD of duct maintenance specialist Ductbusters. “Ducting provides the perfect conduit for fires to spread rapidly through buildings – and into neighbouring buildings,” he says. “The heat build-up inside ducts can cause combustible materials nearby, such as roof joists, to ignite; dust, debris and drafts within ductwork will also exacerbate the spread of fire, leading to significantly higher insurance claims and presenting fire fighters with a more difficult task than needs be.”
All mechanical ventilation systems should have fire dampers installed (Building Regulation 38, and for healthcare facilities, the Department of Health’s Health Technical Memorandum [HTM] 03-01 Part A specifies requirements for fitting of fire dampers). Dampers are designed to drop down in the event of a fire effectively containing it by creating a physical barrier in the duct.
But regular ‘drop’ testing of fire dampers is essential to ensure that should a fire occur, fire dampers will do their job. Fire Damper Regulation BS9999 states that ‘all fire dampers should be tested by a competent person at regular intervals not exceeding 2 years, and to be repaired or replaced immediately if found to be faulty. Spring-operated fire dampers should be tested annually and fire dampers situated in dust-laden and similar atmospheres should be tested much more frequently, at periods suited to the degree of pollution.’ And, in addition, periodic maintenance of any smoke detector system used to operate fire dampers is required to determine whether detection occurs at the appropriate design smoke density. Any faulty smoke detector systems should be either repaired or replaced immediately. In the case of healthcare establishments HTM 03-01 Part B stipulates annual maintenance of all ventilation plant.
Dermott Quinn comments: “You would think that regular damper drop testing would be a given as part of the ongoing fire prevention procedure, but it is shocking how many badly maintained and faulty fire dampers we find when we are called into establishments for the first time. We have found fire dampers with collapsed blades, corroded or jammed springs, dampers jammed open with wood, tied up with wire, even dampers incorrectly installed upside down!”
A recent Channel 4 programme highlighted the problem, citing tests in hospitals of 418 fire dampers during 2010 – only 218 passed.
The Fire Safety Order requires that ‘a person who has some level of control in the premises must take reasonable steps to reduce the risk from fire’. If a fire occurs and the responsible person cannot demonstrate that they been executing their duty correctly, they can be liable for hefty fines – or in the case of fatality, possible criminal prosecution. In addition, the local fire officer has authority to close any premises if they suspect the correct procedures have not been followed.
Insurers are also becoming increasingly concerned with fire prevention according to Dermott Quinn. He says ”Some insurers are including duct cleaning and maintenance directions as part of their policy requirements and failure to comply with these requirements could void buildings insurance. For the peace of mind of property owners and managers, fire damper testing should be done by a qualified specialist that can provide comprehensive reports, detailing the performance of each fire damper, and recommending