In February 2022, one of the most devastating fires in New York City’s history occurred in a 19-story, 120-unit apartment building in the Bronx, killing 17 people and injuring 44. Reports confirm that the fire began in an apartment, where an electric space heater ignited a mattress; the open apartment door allowed smoke to spread. The fire department and other emergency services arrived on scene quickly, but they found residents throughout the building suffering from smoke inhalation.
Unfortunately, fires in multi-family residential buildings are not uncommon. The February fire in New York City is a reminder of the importance of code-compliant fire door assemblies and the need for enforcement of the fire door inspections mandated by current codes and standards.
In this Q&A feature with Facility Executive, Lori Greene, Manager of Codes and Resources at Allegion, offers educated insight around the importance of fire doors in multifamily facilities, illustrating the impact with real-world examples, referencing codes and offering tips to facility managers to ensure compliance.
What role do fire door assemblies play in preventing the spread of fires in a building?
Some walls within a building are required by code to resist the spread of fire for a certain period of time. These walls help to compartmentalize the building into separate areas and protect the means of egress. For example, the walls surrounding an individual apartment in a multifamily building will typically be fire partitions designed and constructed to deter the spread of smoke and flames for one hour or one-half hour. Fire barriers are also found enclosing stairwells, where they help to protect the stairs during a fire to allow building occupants to evacuate safely.
Many of these fire-resistant walls have openings in them, like the entrance door between the corridor and an apartment. The fire door assemblies in these walls are called “opening protectives”, because they are designed to provide a certain level of fire protection for the opening. The building codes and fire codes state the required amount of time these assemblies must resist the passage of smoke and flames — from 20 minutes to 3 hours depending on the level of protection needed. The assemblies are tested by a test facility like those at Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Intertek to ensure that they function as intended.
Are there examples from past fires in multifamily buildings where fire doors had an effect on the outcome?
According to a 2021 report from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), an estimated 86,000 fires occurred in US apartment buildings in 2020, resulting in 350 civilian deaths, 2,900 civilian injuries, and 1.6 billion dollars in property damage. This is an average of 236 apartment fires per day across the country.
Unfortunately, many fire door assemblies (including those serving apartment entries), may become non-code-compliant over time. Although they should have been self-closing and self-latching when installed, if they are not maintained properly they may no longer perform as designed and tested. There have been many examples from past fires where fire doors have remained open when apartment residents fled, instead of automatically closing and latching as required by the codes and standards. An open fire door provides no protection during a fire.
The recent apartment fire in the Bronx resulted in 17 fatalities including 8 children, and 44 people injured. As with many fires in multifamily residential buildings, reports confirmed that the fire began in an apartment, and the open fire door on the apartment entrance allowed the smoke to spread. The FDNY reported that an open stair door on an upper level of the high-rise building caused a “flue effect” — similar to a chimney — and pulled smoke upward through the stairwell. Had these doors been closed, the smoke and fire could have been contained within the apartment. According to the NFPA, most deaths in fires are caused by smoke inhalation, so containing the smoke is key to reducing fire fatalities and injuries.
Recent apartment fires have drawn attention to the condition of the fire doors in multifamily buildings. Can you explain how annual fire door assembly inspections occur and whether they are required by code?
Countless existing fire door assemblies in the U.S. are no longer code-compliant and may not protect the openings in fire-resistance-rated walls as required by code. Building owners and facility managers are responsible for keeping their fire door assemblies functioning properly, but these problems are often overlooked until a fire occurs, and the fire doors cannot do their job.
NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives is referenced by the model codes, and this standard contains detailed information about fire door assemblies. In the 2007 edition, a section was added to NFPA 80 that included prescriptive requirements for inspecting fire doors annually. These mandates have been revised over subsequent editions of the standard, and NFPA 80 now requires swinging fire doors to be inspected after installation and after maintenance work, as well as annually. If deficiencies are found, repairs must be made without delay.
How can facility managers ensure that their fire doors are code-compliant?
The criteria included in NFPA 80 spells out what must be verified during a fire door inspection and other information that must 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; the qualifications may be demonstrated by possession of a degree, certificate, professional standing, or skill.
During a fire door assembly inspection, NFPA 80 requires the verification of 13 criteria:
- Labels on fire doors and frames must be clearly visible and legible.
- There must be no holes or breaks in the surfaces of the door or frame.
- 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.
- All components of the assembly — the door, frame, hinges, hardware, and noncombustible threshold (if present) — must be secured, aligned, and in working order, with no damage.
- No parts of the fire door assembly may be missing or broken.
- The clearances around the perimeter of the door and between the active leaves of a pair of doors must comply with NFPA 80.
- The door must be self-closing, automatic-closing, or power-operated, and the door must close when released from the open position.
- Some pairs of doors must have coordinators which allow the doors to close and latch in the proper sequence.
- Fire doors must have positive-latching hardware, so the doors latch when in the closed position.
- The assembly must not have auxiliary hardware items that interfere with door operation.
- The components of the fire door assembly must not have been modified in a way that voids the label.
- Not all fire doors are required to have gasketing, but where required, the gasketing must be intact and listed for use on a fire door assembly.
- Signage on fire doors must be within the allowable limits of NFPA 80, with regard to the 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 each fire door assembly will function properly during a fire. Documentation of the inspections must be made available to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), similar to other types of inspections such as those that document the condition of automatic fire sprinkler systems, stove hoods, and fire extinguishers. Fires in multifamily residential buildings will continue to occur but inspecting fire door assemblies periodically and addressing any deficiencies found will reduce property damage and save lives.