This post was published in Doors & Hardware

In recent years, there have been numerous fires in apartment buildings where the door leading from the corridor to the dwelling unit of fire origin was left open when the residents escaped.  This allowed smoke and flames to pass from the apartment to the corridor and even the stairwell, compromising the egress routes for other occupants.

Many of these fires resulted in fatalities – 13 people died in a fire in the Bronx which began when a child was playing with the knobs on the stove, and the door was left open when the residents of the apartment fled.  Five people died in a Minneapolis high-rise fire where the apartment door was also left open.  In West London, a fire at the Grenfell Tower – a residential building – caused 72 deaths.  There are many other examples which underscore the importance of a fire door that is closed and latched when a fire occurs.

Although there were multiple factors that affected these fires, investigations have shown that the performance of the apartment doors played a part in each.  Without the protection offered by the door leading to the dwelling unit, building occupants may not be able to escape via the corridors and stairwells.  If a resident chooses to shelter in place in their apartment because their exit route has been compromised, a deficient fire door assembly could jeopardize their safety.

The doors leading from an interior corridor to a residential dwelling unit are typically required by current codes to be fire door assemblies rated for 20 minutes.  This means that the doors, frames, and hardware have been successfully tested and listed to provide at least 20 minutes of protection.  With a 20-minute assembly between the fire in an apartment and the corridor, the egress route will be protected to allow residents to escape.  For residents who remain inside of their apartments, the fire door assembly will give firefighters time to rescue building occupants.

In older buildings that pre-date the requirement for 20-minute fire door assemblies on each interior entrance to a dwelling unit or sleeping unit, the existing doors and frames are often considered to be the equivalent of today’s 20-minute fire doors.  It’s important for these doors to be self-closing and self-latching – a function of the door hardware.  After the Bronx fire in 2017, New York City passed a law that requires interior apartment entry doors to be self-closing, whether they are labeled fire door assemblies or older doors that do not have the 20-minute label.

While existing doors without an official fire rating or smoke label are not technically required by the model codes and standards to be inspected for compliance with the requirements for fire doors or smoke doors, labeled fire door and smoke door assemblies must be inspected.  Currently, the model codes and standards require fire door assemblies to be inspected after installation, after completion of maintenance work, and annually.  The initial inspection helps to ensure that the assemblies are installed properly from the beginning.

For 2019, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has reported the following statistics for structure fires in apartment buildings or other multifamily housing in the United States:  75,000 fires occurred, with 380 civilian deaths, 3,400 civilian injuries, and well over a billion dollars in property damage.  Given the high potential for fires in multifamily residential buildings, the performance of each component of the fire protection system is crucial – including the fire door assemblies.

Since 2009, the model codes used in almost all US states have included inspection requirements for fire doors, with detailed requirements adopted by reference to NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives.  The reason for requiring periodic inspections was that a very high percentage of existing fire door assemblies are not code-compliant, and they may not provide the protection during a fire that they were designed and tested to ensure.  Unfortunately, enforcement of these requirements has been inconsistent, and some jurisdictions have even removed the inspection requirements from their state or local codes because of concerns related to cost and feasibility.

It remains to be seen what will happen when a deficient fire door assembly has not been inspected, does not perform as designed and tested during a fire, and contributes to loss of life.  Where does the liability lie?  Building owners are responsible for keeping their fire door assemblies code compliant, regardless of whether the annual inspection requirements are enforced.  But purposely removing the inspection requirements from a local code could send the message that fire doors really aren’t all that important.  If you have ever witnessed a fire door test and stood on the outside of the fire door with a fire raging in the test furnace on the other side, you understand the protection they provide.

NFPA 80 includes 13 criteria for the inspection of fire door assemblies, which must be carried out by a “qualified person.”  This term is defined by the standard as: A person who, by possession of a recognized degree, certificate, professional standing, or skill, and who, by knowledge, training, and experience, has demonstrated the ability to deal with the subject matter, the work, or the project.

The 13 inspection criteria are:

  1. Labels on fire doors and frames must be clearly visible and legible. Components of a swinging fire door assembly must be listed/labeled to NFPA 252 or UL 10C.  A common question is whether deadbolts must carry this listing since they are not the hardware that is responsible for latching the door, and the answer is “yes.”  All components are required to be listed, unless they are specifically exempted by NFPA 80.
  2. There must be no holes or breaks in the surfaces of the door or frame. NFPA 80 includes specifics on how to fill fastener holes that are no longer in use.  For other holes, the door or frame manufacturer should be consulted to determine whether a proposed repair is in compliance with their listings.
  3. 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. The codes and standards currently require each piece of glazing to be permanently labeled, to demonstrate that it is suitable for use in the door or frame where it is installed.
  4. All components of the assembly – the door, frame, hinges, hardware, and noncombustible threshold – must be secured, aligned, and in working order, with no damage. Missing fasteners are a common deficiency.  Defective components must be repaired or replaced.
  5. No parts of the fire door assembly may be missing or broken. NFPA 80 allows components from different manufacturers and listings labs to be incorporated into a swinging fire door assembly, but each component must be listed, with a few exceptions.
  6. The clearances around the perimeter of the door and between the active leaves of a pair of doors must comply with NFPA 80. Products are now available for reducing excessive clearance on fire doors, but these items must be specifically listed for this purpose.
  7. The door must be self-closing, automatic-closing, or power-operated, and the door must close when released from the fully open position. Note that some codes and standards require the door to close and latch when released from as little as 30 degrees.  This requirement can be very difficult to meet if spring hinges are installed.  Door closers typically control the door more reliably and require less maintenance than spring hinges.
  8. Some pairs of doors must have coordinators which allow the doors to close and latch in the proper sequence. For these doors, the inactive leaf must close before the active leaf to ensure that both doors close and latch.
  9. Fire doors must latch when in the closed position. Positive latching hardware may include a lockset/latchset, fire exit hardware, and/or automatic flush bolts.  This helps to prevent the door from being forced open due to the pressure from a fire, or the stream from the fire hose.
  10. The assembly may not have auxiliary hardware items that interfere with door operation. Although door guards (a security device typical in hotel rooms and apartments) may be used by residents to prevent a fire door from latching, they are not prohibited by NFPA 80.  Some industry members have interpreted the standard to mean that door guards can not be installed on fire doors, but a deadbolt could be improperly used for the same purpose by projecting the bolt when the door is open.
  11. The components of the fire door assembly must not have been modified in a way that voids the label. NFPA 80 includes guidelines for job site preparations and field modifications of fire doors and frames.
  12. 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. Typically, fire doors in corridors and smoke barriers, including interior doors to dwelling units or sleeping units, must have gasketing in order to limit air infiltration to the limit stated in the International Building Code (IBC).  In most cases, thresholds and sweeps are not required by code for these doors.
  13. NFPA 80 limits signage on fire door assemblies to no more than 5 percent of the face of the door, and signage must be attached with adhesive – screws and nails are not permitted by the standard.

After a fire door assembly inspection, the documentation must be signed by the inspector and made available to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).  NFPA 80 details the information that must be included in the inspection report, as well as the length of time the records must be maintained.  When the inspection is completed, an inspection mark may be applied to the fire door assembly, but this mark is not mandated by the standard.  Any deficiencies found during the inspection must be corrected “without delay.”

Although inspecting every fire door in a facility may seen like a daunting task, past fires have demonstrated the value of code-compliant fire door assemblies, as well as the danger presented by existing opening protectives that have been neglected.  Enforcement of the fire door inspection requirements would improve the condition of these assemblies, ensuring that they perform properly.  Even if a jurisdiction is not enforcing the inspection requirements, it is still the responsibility of the building owner or property manager to maintain all fire door assemblies in code-compliant condition.  Based on recent events in multi-unit residential buildings, inspecting fire door assemblies and making the needed repairs will save lives.

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