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Copyright International Fire Protection 2016

The role of the passive fire protection installer

A well designed passive fire protection (PFP) strategy and specification are not the only considerations in adequately protecting built assets from fire. Of equal importance is the workmanship of installers and, thereafter, the maintenance team.

PFP is built into the fabric of an asset or building in the form of walls, floors, ceilings, beams, columns, screens, seals, fire-stops, doors and shutters. It performs two essential functions in the event of a fire:

  1. It allows the asset to remain stable for a specified period to allow people time to escape and fire fighters to attend, for example.
  2. It resists the spread of fire and smoke between assets, or between subdivisions within a single asset, helping to protect people or valuable contents in a building, for example.

PFP strategies comprise disparate elements that together make a critical system. Installing a single one of these elements without an understanding of the overall critical system can lead to integration errors, even when that element is correctly installed.

The impact of fire and smoke has the potential to be extremely grave. It can kill and severely injure. It will also destroy or write off fixtures, furnishings and equipment and fatally weaken the structural integrity of assets.

In an industrial setting, this sets up a domino effect of negative impacts, interrupting business and leading to delay, financial losses, lawsuits, redundancies and even insolvency or bankruptcy. Although the risk cannot be eliminated altogether, the impact is so detrimental to operations as to demand efforts to minimise it.

Fires and smoke are dangerous but they usually become catastrophic when they spread from the room of origin. The point of PFP is to prevent this spread or, at the very least, delay it. All too often, however, fires do spread, often because of faults with the installation.

Certain elements of PFP construction such as masonry walls or timber or steel structures are likely to remain untouched throughout the life of the structure. They need no maintenance and little vigilance from the point of view of fire safety. Therefore, the main risks arise if they are not installed correctly in the first instance.

However, other elements of construction, such as doors and partition walls, suffer from wear and tear or are more likely to be altered and are, accordingly, a higher risk factor. Those that are subjected to daily use, such as doors, shutters and so on, will need to have their fire safety role preserved through a programme of maintenance. Equally, elements that are likely to be altered or penetrated (to allow building services to pass through, for example) will suffer damage and require repair. The new penetrating element will need effective fire-stopping. Both need to be properly installed at the start of their life, and the people who work on them subsequently need to be competent.

Since many PFP solutions are effectively hidden in the final building, they are difficult to put right. More importantly, they are very difficult to verify or detect by cursory inspection, even if the offending structure is visible. It takes skill, experience and competence to accurately identify the fire rating of an element, especially in the absence of any historic documentation.

Retrospective fixing is, of course, unavoidable in some circumstances, especially where a building undergoes a change of use or working practices are introduced that change the existing fire risks. In instances like this, maintenance work is likely to be carried out years later and left to less well qualified facilities management staff than during an initial build, where highly qualified fire installers with a fresh understanding of the fire strategy may be on hand.

Minimum life-safety aspects of PFP are often enshrined in legislation and regulated both when the asset is built and after it is in use. However, owners, insurers and other interested parties will often go further than this minimum if the risks warrant it.

An example of a plugging system utilised by a third party certification provider for fire doors, denoting the door leaf and complete doorset has been manufactured by a third party certified company (red and silver plugs) and the doorset installed by a third party certified installer (gold plug).

An example of a plugging system utilised by a third party certification provider for fire doors, denoting the door leaf and complete doorset has been manufactured by a third party certified company (red and silver plugs) and the doorset installed by a third party certified installer (gold plug).

Part of the solution to good installation is to get the specification right in the first instance. A comprehensive specification, clearly defined and accompanied by accurate, comparable drawings, goes a long way to mitigating the risk of misunderstanding. Wherever possible, only adequately quality-assured and tested products should be specified. The overall strategy needs to be effectively communicated, with the integration issues clearly expressed. In this respect, working in a contractual BIM environment helps.

Even after handing over comprehensive specification information and clearly communicating the strategy, success still lies in the hands of the installer.

Double-checking every aspect of every element of a PFP build is one way to check the quality of what they do. However, doing so is likely to be deeply inefficient and unrealistic, especially during the initial build. A more practical precaution might be to double-check a representative sample of typical PFP constructions.

It is likely that you will want evidence that the installer is adequately qualified before they come on site. Indeed, insurers and fire consultants are increasingly insisting on third-party certificated services for peace of mind.

It is not enough to rely solely on the installer’s authorisation. Instead, check that that they have relevant recent experience, and that they can back up their claims with certificates of competence.

The things to look for are not just the existence of a certificate, but a relevant, up-to-date certificate from a recognised organisation. Given the fire risks associated with PFP installation and its systemic complexity, careful scrutiny of any documentation is critical. The certificate must be relevant to your type of installation, in date, and from a properly accredited third-party organisation.

Fortunately, there are a number of highly reputable third-party certification schemes for installation and maintenance providers. Successful candidates will typically only be awarded their certificate if they have attended a training course, passed an examination, and had their work scrutinised by an independent third party.

This gives the highest possible level of confidence that the work will be carried out correctly. Insisting on certificates of this kind will also demonstrate due diligence in the unfortunate event of a fire. Dealing with the damaging effects of fire is bad enough without the additional burden of being the subject of a legal claim.

While the fixed structural elements of PFP are of course critically important, they are rarely subject to change during the life of a building. We have established that partition walls and doors are much more prone to be altered or suffer damage through wear and tear than fixed structural elements of PFP, so it is especially important that the people who install or maintain them understand what they are doing.

The fundamental objective is to preserve the element’s confirmed fire rating. Small repairs to the beading around the glazing in a fire door can have catastrophic effects on the fire rating, for example, and so it is critical that the installer must appreciate what can and cannot be done.

Work to maintain a fire rating is difficult, particularly on fire doors or when building services penetrate a fire barrier. However, when it is also accompanied by a change of use that increases or merely changes the fire risks in the building, more sophisticated knowledge is needed. Of course, this is where the right certificate attesting relevant competence is especially valuable.

There is no question that employing third-party certified installers are worth the extra cost for the fire risks they mitigate. Furthermore, installing and maintaining PFP elements correctly extends their service life. More to the point, retrospective fixes for poorly installed designs are disproportionately difficult and expensive, adding extra motivation to get it right first time round.

For more information, go to www.exovabmtrada.com

Ross Newman, Principal Technical Officer, Exova BM TRADA.

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