A recent fire in a Bronx apartment building is yet another 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. Please feel free to share the article below with anyone who could benefit from a better understanding of fire doors.

This post will be published in Door Security + Safety

This photo shows a fire door that was closed and latched during an apartment fire, helping to contain the smoke and flames, and protecting residents and escape routes on the non-fire side of the door. The small amount of smoke damage visible above the door opening passed through between the frame and the wall – not between the frame and the door. This illustrates the value of code-compliant clearances around fire doors.

On January 9th, 2022, a fire occurred in a 19-story apartment building in the Bronx. Initial reports have confirmed that the fire began in an apartment, where an electric space heater ignited a mattress; the open apartment door allowed smoke to spread. When the fire department and other emergency services began arriving only 3 minutes after the fire alarm was activated, they found residents throughout the building suffering from smoke inhalation. Seventeen people were killed, including eight children, and 44 people were injured.

Fires in multi-family residential buildings are not uncommon. A report published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) in October 2021 estimated that 86,000 fires occurred in US apartment buildings in 2020, with the majority of home fires resulting from five causes: cooking, heating, electrical distribution and lighting equipment, intentional fire setting, and smoking materials. The tables supporting this report show 2020 totals of 350 civilian deaths, 2,900 civilian injuries, and 1.6 billion dollars in property damage caused by the 86,000 apartment fires – an average of 236 apartment fires PER DAY.

In most US states, current building codes require apartment buildings to have both active and passive fire protection. Automatic fire sprinkler systems, a type of active fire protection, are currently required by the International Building Code (IBC) for residential occupancies, although they are not required for all existing buildings. Apartment buildings are also required by the IBC to have fire partitions separating each apartment from the next, and corridor walls must be fire-resistance-rated when the corridor is serving an occupant load of more than 10 people. Exit stairwells are also surrounded by fire-rated enclosures – walls creating a protected shaft for vertical travel within the building.

The walls between apartments, along the corridors, and surrounding the stairwells serve a very important purpose. They are designed to compartmentalize an apartment building, slowing the spread of smoke and flames from one apartment to the next. They also enclose the corridors and stairwells to give building occupants safe escape routes. Door openings in these walls are protected by fire door assemblies, which include a fire door, frame, and hardware that have been tested and certified to withstand fire for a certain period of time. Without these assemblies, also known as opening protectives, the walls can not do their job.

As with the other fires discussed in this article, the door to the apartment of fire origin was left open, allowing the smoke and flames to extend into the corridor and compromising this portion of the egress path. The closed and latched door at the end of the corridor was able to withstand the pressure of the fire and contain the smoke and flames.

We don’t yet know all the facts related to the Bronx fire, and we expect to learn more in the future, but let’s look at what the model code requirements are intended to achieve. In an apartment building constructed with today’s codes, individual apartments would be compartmentalized by fire partitions and self-closing, self-latching fire doors. If a fire began in an apartment, the walls and closed doors would isolate the apartment, reducing the oxygen supply to the fire and limiting the spread of smoke and flames. Even in an existing building without an automatic fire sprinkler system, containing the fire – and especially the smoke – to one apartment would likely save lives. The corridors and stairwells are designed to be usable for evacuation during a fire, or residents can shelter in place in protected apartments.

So, what may have gone wrong in the Bronx apartment building? What might have allowed smoke to leave the apartment of fire origin, fill the corridors and stairwells, and lead to so many injuries and fatalities?

According to the commissioner of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), at least two doors were open during the fire – the apartment entry door, and a stairwell door on an upper floor. If the apartment door had been closed and latched, it would have typically deterred the fire’s spread for at least 20 minutes, protecting the corridor. But with that door open, the smoke was able to leave the apartment, fill the corridor, and begin to spread throughout the building. The FDNY reported that the open stair door 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.

Why were the doors open? Has this happened before?

For decades, the model codes adopted across the US have mandated fire door assemblies on apartment entries and stairwells. Fire doors are required to be automatically closed and latched if a fire occurs, and the doors themselves are constructed to withstand fire for 20 minutes to 3 hours. If the fire door is functioning properly, it will help to compartmentalize the building and deter the spread of smoke and flames. If the fire door is standing open, it is useless.

This is not the first apartment fire where open doors contributed to the loss of life. In 2019, a fire in a Minneapolis high rise apartment building resulted in 5 fatalities. The Minnesota State Fire Marshal’s report on that fire stated, Had the door between the corridor and apartment been able to close, it is the SFMD’s opinion that the fire would have been contained to the apartment of origin and the loss of life would have been reduced and possibly only involved the occupant of that apartment.”

In 2017, a fire at Grenfell Tower in the UK resulted in 72 fatalities. During the inquiry into that fire, failure of self-closing fire doors was again mentioned: “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.”

Another apartment fire occurred in the Bronx in December of 2017, caused by a young child playing with the knobs on the stove. When the child’s mother escaped with her two children, the apartment door was left open, and 13 people were killed. Many media reports blamed the mother, and the FDNY Commissioner repeated the mantra, “Close the door, close the door, close the door.” A few news articles pointed out that the door should have closed on its own. From one such article: “By law, however, the apartment building was required to have self-closing, fireproof doors–because fire safety shouldn’t depend on the split-second decisions of panicked parents trying to save their children. Such a door on the apartment where the fire originated could have prevented the fire from spreading for 90 minutes. Instead, when firefighters arrived three-and-a-half minutes after the first calls to emergency services, they found burned bodies in the five-floor building’s lobby as panicked residents rushed to descend an icy fire escape.”

How can we help keep this from happening again?

After the 2017 fire in the Bronx, New York City passed Local Law 111, which required all apartments to have self-closing doors between the corridor and the apartment by July 31, 2021. If all apartment entry doors were fire door assemblies as required by current codes, the local law would have been redundant – fire doors are already required to be self-closing. But the local law would cover older apartment buildings that were not required to have fire doors on the apartment entries, as well as drawing attention to the requirement and increasing enforcement. Unfortunately, the apartment entry door involved in the Bronx fire stayed open when the occupants escaped; the reason for this has not yet been released.

In order for fire doors to perform as designed and tested, they have to be functioning properly. Because of the appalling condition of fire door assemblies across the US, requirements were added to the codes and standards almost 15 years ago, stating that fire doors must be inspected annually. More recent editions of NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives also require fire door assembly inspections to be conducted after installation and after maintenance work. Documentation of these inspections must be made available to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ), such as the fire marshal. This is consistent with other types of inspection reports, like the documentation for the inspection of sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, fire dampers, and commercial kitchen hoods. When deficiencies are found during a fire door assembly inspection, they must be repaired “without delay.” An annual fire door assembly inspection in the apartment buildings mentioned above may have resulted in the repair/replacement of any deficiencies found.

Considering NFPA’s estimate of 86,000 apartment fires in one year (2020), these residential fires will continue to occur. And while some apartment buildings have automatic fire sprinkler systems to help reduce a fire’s spread, many apartment buildings were built before these systems were required by code. Fire door assemblies are mandated by code for apartment buildings with or without sprinkler systems, but to ensure their performance, the fire doors must be checked periodically. These assemblies are often targets of misuse and abuse, and they require maintenance and adjustment over time. The annual inspection requirements included in the model building codes, fire codes, and NFPA 80, can help to save lives if they are enforced.

It has been demonstrated by past fires that deficient fire doors can increase the number of fatalities and injuries and the amount of property damage during a fire. We know that these fires will continue to occur, we know that code-compliant fire doors can help keep people safe, and we have an enforceable solution that will help ensure the performance of these assemblies. Specialized inspectors, trained in the detailed requirements for fire doors, are qualified to perform these inspections. Building owners and property managers are responsible for arranging the inspections and addressing the problems. Perhaps if insurance companies someday require fire door inspections as a condition of their coverage, this could increase attention to the condition of these vital components of a building’s passive fire protection system. It’s imperative that AHJs enforce the fire door assembly inspections required by code and verify that deficiencies have been repaired. The cost of failure to do so can be measured in lives lost.

Note: Apartment residents should be educated on the role their fire doors play in their safety as well as the safety of the other residents. A means of reporting fire doors that are not self-closing or other problems related to fire safety can help to ensure that the deficiencies are addressed promptly.

Photo Credit: Scott Strassburg, City of Madison Fire Department

To learn more about fire doors, visit iDigHardware.com/firedoor.