Fire Safety Systems Save Lives Only If Kept in Good Order

Aug. 21, 2007
By Craig Rutledge

We are all aware of the devastation a fire can cause. The human loss, the financial loss, and despair it causes for those involved is immeasurable. The overriding responsibilities of fire code inspectors, fire and smoke damper inspectors, building owners, and facility managers are prevention and protection.

One of the best ways to protect a large building or facility from the deadly spread of fire is the installation, inspection, and maintenance of smoke and fire dampers, sprinkler systems, and smoke alarms. Unfortunately, for the exception of hospitals that have the inspection of fire and smoke dampers enforced by groups such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), many facilities do not have their dampers inspected every 4 years as required by NFPA 90A.

Are our nursing homes, long-term care facilities, office buildings, hotels, schools, and college campus buildings any less important? These facilities are in just as much danger of experiencing devastating fires as our hospitals, yet fire and smoke dampers are inspected less frequently - if at all.

Who can forget such horrific tragedies as the deadly fires at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in 1980, and the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel and Casino in 1981, where nearly 800 people were injured and 85 were killed? The NFPA itself stated in its report on the fire at the MGM Hotel that fire dampers "... did not completely close" and that, as a result, "... products of combustion were distributed throughout the HVAC equipment ... providing a method for the spread of smoke that may also have contributed to several fatalities."

A more recent tragedy is that of the World Trade Center in New York City, where nearly 3,000 civilians and firefighters lost their lives when both towers became engulfed in smoke and flames. The United States Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology investigated the World Trade Center disaster and found that, had there been operable fire and smoke dampers in the two towers, they "would have acted to slow the development of hazardous conditions on the uppermost floors of the building" in tower one and two, and, as a result, provided occupants more time to flee the building.

According to the Center for Campus Fire Safety, a non-profit organization that serves as an advocate for the promotion of campus fire safety, since January 2000, 88 people have died in campus-related fires across the country. Center Director Ed Comeau says that two of the most common factors in fatal student housing fires are disabled smoke alarms and a lack of automatic sprinkler systems. In almost every case, these fires were preventable and lives could have been saved, according to Comeau.

The reasons for not conducting regular inspections vary, but most often, it is the lack of manpower in the building's facilities management department that prevents proper inspections from being conducted. In a perfect world, fires would be prevented from ever starting; however, this is not always possible. This best defense is to contain a fire long enough for a building's occupants to have time to escape and, secondarily, prevent as much structural loss as possible. Regular maintenance of fire-safety devices such as fire and smoke dampers does this.

Of the more than 150 hospitals and other facilities that Louisville, KY-based Life Safety Services inspects each year, there is an approximate failure rate of 10 percent in dampers - and these are dampers that are inspected and maintained on a regular basis. Imagine what's happening to the dampers in buildings that are never inspected.

Even the top damper manufacturers like Ruskin, Greenheck, and Nailor recommend testing and inspection of dampers every 6 months. According to these manufacturers, increased testing should extend the life of the damper and lessen the need to replace the dampers, thus saving money and making buildings safer at the same time.

There are a number of reasons the industry should be working to maintain and even strengthen the current codes and standards used to inspect the fire and smoke dampers at facilities, such as:
  • The failure rates of fire and smoke dampers are still high.
  • Dampers have been tied to preventing the spread of toxic fumes in the event of a terrorist attack.
  • Fire and smoke dampers can save lives by stopping or delaying the spread of deadly gas, smoke, and flames.
  • Buildings experience less overall damage when fire dampers help contain the spread of a fire (this means lower replacement and reconstruction costs for building owners and managers).

The statistics don't lie: They tell us that properly installed, inspected, and maintained fire and smoke dampers, sprinkler systems, and smoke alarms will save lives and money. But, these systems are only effective if they are kept in good working order. The current codes should be strengthened to ensure that inspections and maintanence of these systems is a regular part of overall building upkeep. If not, we will surely see the effects in a rise in fatalities and costs associated with building fires.

Craig Rutledge is a partner of Louisville, KY-based Life Safety Services LLC (, which specializes in the inspection of fire and smoke dampers at facilities throughout the United States. To find out more, call Craig at (888) 675-4519 or e-mail ([email protected]).

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