Despite their crucial fire safety role, huge numbers of fire and smoke dampers remain untested in thousands of buildings across the UK, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
The Association fears that less than 1% of buildings have been fully tested in line with legislation, despite growing awareness of the importance of carrying out comprehensive fire safety risk assessments in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
Many building owners are unaware that they have a legal responsibility to ensure the fire and smoke dampers in their buildings are tested at least once a year – and sometimes more regularly depending on indoor conditions. Even where testing is being carried out, it is often impossible to access at least 25% of the dampers in a building and, in the worst cases, as many as 90% cannot be reached or even located.
Failing to check that these devices are in good working order and, therefore, able to reduce the risk of fire and smoke spreading through a building, can lead to hefty fines and possible prison sentences under current fire regulations.
“Many building owners don’t even know they have dampers; even less that they are a critical element of their building’s fire safety system,” said BESA’s technical consultant Peter Rogers. “However, since Grenfell there has been much greater focus on all aspects of fire safety.
“This has obvious implications for damper testing regimes, best practice and the competence of the firms employed to locate, test, and maintain these safety critical devices,” Rogers told a BESA webinar this week.
He explained that the Association had updated its technical guidance for Fire and Smoke Damper Maintenance (VH001) and that this can now be downloaded from its website as part of BESA’s contribution to improving the overall safety of buildings.
The webinar heard that there are an estimated 30 million fire and smoke dampers already installed in UK buildings and, if each one was checked and repaired when necessary as required by law, the damper testing market would be worth at least £500 million annually.
Despite the clear legal obligations, the BESA webinar heard that many buildings including hospitals (which typically contain thousands of dampers) had arbitrarily decided to reduce testing to once every five years to save money.
“That’s like deciding to only put your seatbelt on once in every five car journeys,” said George Friend, chair of BESA’s Ventilation Hygiene group. “How do you know on which journey you are going to crash?”
Part of the testing regime involves flagging up which dampers cannot be found or accessed and providing suggestions for remedial works – including installing access panels and/or builders’ hatches – to ensure all dampers can be checked and repaired if necessary.
“It is also crucial that we move away from the tick list culture that still dominates testing regimes,” said Richard Norman, managing director of Indepth Services. “To be compliant with legislation, testing should involve comprehensive photographic records showing the condition of the damper before, during, and after testing.
“The availability of VH001 has improved the situation and if all building owners or managers only used contractors who complied with this guidance, it would eradicate a big part of the problem,” added Norman.
VH001 outlines all aspects of a compliant test regime in line with industry best practice and standards. It builds on the industry’s installation and commissioning code of practice DW/145, the sheet metal ductwork specification DW/144, and the ventilation hygiene standard TR/19.
The BESA testing guidance was produced in response to urgent calls for a methodology to help the building services industry comply with the British Standard (BS9999) for fire safety in the design, management and use of buildings along with the healthcare sector’s technical documents HTM 03-01 for heating and ventilation and HTM 05-02 for fire safety in healthcare premises.
BESA’s guidance explains how dampers should be located – in line with the responsibilities of the system designer and as part of a building’s fire strategy – and accessed for testing along with the levels of competence required to carry out this work. It states that an inventory of all dampers should be created and that every manually resettable damper is individually released to ensure the spring-loaded shutter remains operational.
The BESA document also sets out a comprehensive plan for providing reports to clients and any findings that need action including damaged and missing dampers. It also highlights key elements needed to put a planned maintenance regime in place linked to the Association’s digital planned maintenance tool SFG20.
“It is no longer acceptable – or compliant – to put in your report that a damper could not be tested,” said Friend. “There are a lot of people out there carrying out visual inspections that add no value for clients and certainly don’t make people safer.”
Some firms have also been carrying out full building surveys to establish the number of dampers installed without actually carrying out any testing, the webinar heard.
“Not only does this do nothing to improve fire safety, it is a criminal waste of a client’s time and money. If you are carrying out a survey, why not test at the same time?” said Norman, adding that one positive outcome from the Covid crisis was that many clients had been saving themselves time and money by getting indoor air quality and damper testing done at the same time.
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