Doorway dilemmas: Addressing the critical gaps in fire door installation

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Richard Kowalski, Technical Manager for Doors at Stairways Midland, discusses the critical gaps in fire door installation and the urgent need for regulation

Is it time fire door installation became a regulated profession? Richard Kowalski, Technical Manager for Doors at Stairways Midlands, an expert in his field with more than 25 years’ experience and a member of the British Woodworking Federation Council, sets out his argument.

Fire doors are a carefully engineered fire safety device required by law in many circumstances to help safeguard life in the event of the fire. It is not enough that they are compliant in themselves – to work effectively, it is essential they are fitted correctly. Yet, there is no formal qualification required to be able to fit a fire door, and the profession remains unregulated. Kowalski is among the leading figures in the sector calling for that to change.

What is the status quo?

While there is no mandatory qualification needed to install a fire door a level of expertise and competency is required: the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (RRO/FSO) sets out that fire doors should be installed by a “competent person” however a question mark remains over ‘what competency means in this context,’ explains Kowalski.

There are voluntary third-party certification schemes for installation contractors such FIRAS run by Q-Mark for example, or Certifire certification. Adds Kowalski: “These schemes mean that the installation company has to have processes and procedures in place – they need to be ISO certificated, attending training courses, inspected both on site and within their offices and in their processes, and know how a fire door works.

“The trouble is each scheme is run differently. The schemes are not mandatory, and they can be very expensive to both be a member of and to manage.

“There is a real mixed bag out there, with some contractors having have achieved this high standard, and others who think finding a course online makes them a competent person – especially, in my experience, when it comes to small residential developments outside of big cities.

“A gas engineer couldn’t install a boiler legally unless they are registered with Gas Safe, with all the requirements and training that entails. Yet any joiner can turn up on site and install a fire door. The implications for safety can be just as serious.”

Leaving the door open for mistakes

While there are examples of good practice, without proper regulation, the door is left open for serious mistakes, believes Kowalski: “While awareness has improved, we are still turning up on sites and seeing big gaps around doors, doors in the wrong openings or the use of the wrong mastic, because the installer doesn’t know to check the fire certificate and look at the minimum and maximum gaps for that product to make sure it is compatible with that specific door set.

“With the new regulatory requirements around ongoing inspection and maintenance of fire doors, we are seeing a number of projects from the past ten years revisited – uncovering fire doors that were never installed correctly and would never have been viable or compliant, which goes to show the extent of this problem.

“We’ve even seen inspectors go in and pull off the architrave and find there was no mastic at all between the frame and the structural opening in any of the doors. You can have the best possible fire door which is 100% compliant – but fire will find the weakest point. In this case, they almost might as well have left it open!

Taking responsibility

New legislation also demands more from those specifying, installing and responsible for maintaining fire doors – there is a golden thread of responsibility for ensuring the door is compliant and safe.

Kowalski adds: “There is a misapprehension that installers don’t have responsibility once they’re off site – but they can be held liable for up to 30 years under changes to the Defective Premises Act brought in under Building Safety Act 2022 – and that applies to all dwellings.

“There is a lot for them to do, especially in the case of traditional hung doors. Installers have a responsibility for ensuring the door leaf is compliant and compatible with all the components, from the intumescent, to the ironmongery, to the closer, as well as getting the fitting right.

Unfortunately, there is “a massive education gap,” adds Kowalski: “Not just among joiners and installers, but also site managers, buyers, the housebuilders themselves. Everyone has responsibility to get this right, but it often comes down to NHBC or building control inspectors when they come on site to uncover the issues.

“As manufacturers we take our responsibility very seriously. We send out installation instructions with every order acknowledgement and at call off. Every door has a QR code which links to installation instructions, and we have luggage tags on the bottom of every door to make people aware that the undercut might need adjusting – again with a QR code linking to instructions. Our toolbox talks and training are also always available to joiners and contractors.

“It’s not enough to think ‘I’ve been a chippy for 25 years so I’m competent’, or ‘we’ve done it this way for years and never had a problem’. You might have been doing it wrong for years unfortunately.

“While this remains an unregulated profession, we are still going to see mistakes that mean fire doors fail inspection, or even worse, fail in the event of a fire and cost someone’s life.

“That is why it’s so important that we resolve this issue of competency in legislature and ensure that every fire door is fitted correctly first time.”

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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