When a code change occurs and a jurisdiction adopts the updated edition of the code, we don’t typically question whether or not that change will be enforced. For example, years ago when the IBC was changed to require panic hardware for certain use groups with an occupant load of 50 people instead of 100 people, we started specifying panic hardware for the smaller spaces – we didn’t debate whether or not it was a good idea or whether it should be enforced.
Some jurisdictions still have not begun enforcing the fire door assembly inspection requirements, even when their adopted codes require the inspections. Some cities and states have even modified their codes to omit the inspection requirements. A few months ago I shared the modification made to the Minnesota State Fire Code, which removed fire door inspections from the state code because they were “unnecessary and too costly.” This modification was approved despite a 2019 Minneapolis high rise fire that resulted in 5 fatalities, in large part because of an apartment entry door was not self-closing – this could have been addressed if a fire door inspection had been done.
There is very egregious example involving deficient fire doors that is being examined in the UK court system – the fire that occurred at Grenfell Tower in 2017, resulting in 72 fatalities. According to an article published in Inside Housing, the organization responsible for the safety of the residential tower decided not to adopt a fire door inspection program because the value of the inspection program could not be demonstrated. Here is an excerpt from a recent article – Inside Housing – RBKC said no to fire door inspections as safety benefit ‘impossible to quantify’:
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry heard today from Janice Wray, former health and safety lead at Kensington and Chelsea Management Organisation (KCTMO), which was employed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) to manage and maintain its housing stock.
In 2017 Ms Wray recommended to KCTMO and RBKC leaders that a regular inspection programme of fire doors be introduced following repeated pressure from the LFB.
Specifically the LFB wanted KCTMO to regularly check that fire door self-closers were fitted properly, as it is crucial that fire doors remain closed in the event of a fire.
The inquiry has already established that most of the self-closers on fire doors at Grenfell Tower were broken or missing on the night of the fire, which is believed to have contributed to the spread of smoke through the building.
Earlier testimony during the inquiry established that the main issue in question was the operation of door closers on the unit entry doors, which were “spot-checked” when residents answered their doors to the inspector’s knock – Inside Housing – KCTMO failed to fix 23 high-priority issues on last Grenfell fire risk assessment, inquiry hears:
In his last FRA of Grenfell Tower in June 2016, he identified only two flats where there were issues with the entrance fire doors. He would later cite only these two as having issues in his report following the October 2016 walk around the block, by which time they had still not been fixed.
But the inquiry was shown a report carried out by the Building Research Establishment (BRE) which concluded that on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire that at least 64% of flat front doors either did not have a self-closer fitted or had a closer installed which did not work.
It also came to light that the fire risk assessor falsified the credentials that established his capabilities, adding letters after his name that he had not earned – The Guardian – Grenfell fire risk assessor added letters after his name, inquiry hears:
The fire risk assessor hired to check the safety of Grenfell Tower put letters after his name suggesting professional registrations that either did not exist or which he did not have, the inquiry into the disaster has heard.
Carl Stokes, a former firefighter who was recruited by the Grenfell landlord, used six “post-nominals” when he was bidding for the job but agreed under cross-examination at the inquiry into the disaster that they had either “come out of [his] own head because they didn’t exist or were thoroughly misleading truncations” of courses he had undertaken.
The inquiry heard that Stokes also cut-and-pasted assessments about the fire safety of the tower from reports on other buildings he had carried out. This introduced errors into fire risk assessments that were required under law.
Sadly, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), had been aware of the deficiencies at Grenfell Tower since at least 2010, when a small fire occurred. In subsequent years, the organization continued to avoid addressing the problems – The Spectator – How the residents of Grenfell Tower were failed:
At one stage in 2014, the organisation had a backlog of 1,400 fire safety issues which had not been resolved across the borough. KCTMO decided not to disclose the risk assessments to the London Fire Brigade to avoid ‘more scrutiny’.
Issues around fire door self-closing devices stood out in particular. These are utterly crucial to safety in a tower block. In a panicked escape from a blazing flat few people have the wherewithal to pull their front door closed. If the door does not swing shut by itself, smoke will simply pour through the building.
In 2015, following a fire in another block, the London Fire Brigade asked for a programme to replace any defective self-closers in other high rises and monitor their condition.
The replacement work was estimated to cost around £600,000 and ongoing monitoring would be an annual expense. This was enough for the council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC), which set KCTMO’s budget, to push back.
In minutes of one meeting it is recorded that the RBKC’s director of housing, Laura Johnson, bluntly ‘said no’ to the replacement programme. Other documents show that she tried to push it from one year to five to save money. At the time of the Grenfell Tower fire, it had still not been done. Giving evidence last month, Ms Johnson explained her actions by saying the borough had already carried out major works to fire doors in recent years and the experience taught her the process would not be quick to complete.
I can’t help but wonder where the liability will fall when this court case comes to a conclusion. The lack of inspection was not an oversight – the Royal Bureau of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) made a conscious decision not to implement a program, in part because it could open the organization to liability if the fire doors were found to be deficient – Inside Housing – RBKC decided against fire door inspection programme months before Grenfell fire:
In minutes from a March 2017 meeting between RBKC and Kensington and Chelsea Management Organisation (KCTMO), which managed the council’s housing stock, it was noted that the council would “hold off recommending [fire door] inspections programme at present”.
The minutes also noted the “huge costs” of a fire door inspection programme, as well as the fact that it could open KCTMO up to “liability” if the doors are broken.
The decision to hold off on an inspection programme was made despite various requests from the LFB that KCTMO ensure all doors to the flats it managed were fit with self-closers and that it introduce an inspection programme to discover any self-closers that were faulty or had been removed.
And what will happen when a fire occurs in the US, where an adopted fire code requires periodic fire door inspections and a state or local jurisdiction decides not to enforce the requirement? I’m afraid we’ll find out before too long.