Don't get your fingers burnt by failure to comply with fire-door regulations. Piers Ford clears the smoke
The Penhallow Hotel fire, which killed three people in Newquay last August, was the worst hotel blaze in 30 years. It raised concerns throughout the fire safety and risk assessment community that the hospitality industry is still catching up with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order, which came into force in October 2006.
The legislation effectively handed the onus of fire risk assessment from the local fire authority back to the business itself, requiring the owner to appoint a "responsible person" - in most small hotels, likely to be the owner or manager - to carry out their own risk assessment, identify hazards and demonstrate what they are doing to eliminate them.
Today, if a fire authority inspects a business and finds that no risk assessment has been carried out, or that the risk assessment is inadequate, the owner of the business faces immediate prosecution.
An official report on the possible causes of the Torquay tragedy will not be released until next year. But some experts are worried that hotel owners still don't fully understand their fire safety responsibilities as defined by the legislation, particularly when it comes to fire doors.
"The problem is that people apart from fire officers are not generally trained to carry out fire risk assessments, so there are a great number of ‘responsible people' looking to fulfil the requirement off the internet," says Brian Strickland, a former Lancashire firefighter and officer who now runs an independent consultancy, Fire Risk Management Solutions.
"At best," Strickland adds, "they are using generic risk assessment criteria that can't take into account the foibles of individual premises. So in answer to the question, ‘Do all your rooms have fire doors?', the manager might be able to identify them all and answer, ‘Yes'. But they may have no idea whether the door is actually doing the job for which it was installed."
Fitting a new fire door is not simply a matter of popping down to your local DIY superstore and coming back with a piece of wood to fill a pre-existing frame, explains Richard Lambert, chief executive of BWF, which operates one of the three main fire door certification schemes in the UK.
"For most of its working life, a fire door will look and behave like an ordinary door," he says. "Only during a fire does it come into its own as a precision-engineered safety device. It's important that the door is correctly installed in the first place, but then you have got to make sure it is maintained properly, with regular checks on the door leaf, the components [hinges, closers, signage and any glass vision panels] and the frame itself."
Lambert believes one of the problems is that, historically, fire doors have been treated as a commodity product and there has been resistance among building contractors to paying premium prices for them.
One commonly overlooked weak spot is door closers, says Chris Bass, managing director at specialist supplier Ironmongery Direct.
"You need to make sure you select a product which closes a fire door and keeps it closed without prohibiting people from moving around the building," Bass says. "Quite often, different closer models from different manufacturers will be required to meet the needs of all fire doors throughout a building. We recently supplied four different models of fire door closer from three manufacturers on a hotel project. The building now complies with all legislation - and the staff have commented on how much easier it is to pass through the building - especially for cleaners, who are often moving around with large trolleys."
Closers can also be automated so that they shut when the fire alarm is activated - preventing the frequently discovered but illegal situation of doors being propped open by fire extinguishers or bins to allow staff to move more freely.
As with any other door in constant use, there is a tendency for the hinges to drop over time. This might be missed by the untrained eye but, if it happens, by even a few millimetres, it will increase the gap between frame and door, creating a potentially fatal weakness in the event of a fire.
One of the key components of a fire door is the intumescent strip, a material around the edge of the leaf that swells when exposed to high heat, filling the gap between the door and frame so that smoke and hot gases are unable to leak through. If the gap is greater than specified by the manufacturer, the strip will be unable to function properly.
Hoteliers operating in listed buildings are often worried that fire doors will be incompatible with their heritage responsibilities, but Strickland says that due diligence is all that is required to make sure your existing doors comply with the regulations.
"Fire doors in older properties can be oversize or consist of panelling that wouldn't meet the criteria of a modern fire door," he says, "and hotel owners might be frightened of losing the style and charisma of the fittings, apart from infringing their listed status.
"If an expert looks at them and deems them suitable, they can be treated and certified by a specialist. But if you employ such a specialist, it's up to you to ensure that, at the end of the job, you have a certificate that is acceptable to the fire authority and other parties."
The same goes for asking any third party to carry out a fire risk assessment on your behalf. Strickland says that there is little legislation to say who is competent to carry out fire risk assessments, and people tend to put themselves forward from the security, insurance and building industries. It is therefore vital that you check the competency and quality of the service you are buying in ask for a CV and make sure they are adequately insured, with professional indemnity.
"People who stay in hotels are living in a strange building and some will require assistance to evacuate," he adds. "At times like the festive season, when guests may be the worse for drink and staff are pushed to the limit, the consequences of a fire risk not being properly managed are unthinkable."
He concludes: "There are two questions I would always ask a hotel manager: ‘Have you carried out a fire risk assessment? And can I see a copy?'."
The cost of prevention
Given the possible consequences, failing to invest in regulation-compliant fire doors is an economy that no hotel owner can afford to make. Prices start from as little as £100 for a basic assembly (including door and frame), rising to £175 to £200 for sets including vision panels.
High-quality architectural doors for special environments such as listed buildings might cost anything between £250 and £500.
Fire door certification
The first stop for any hotel owner concerned about fire door regulation should be the Fire Safety Officer at their county Fire and Rescue Service, who will be able to advise them on all aspects of business fire safety.
By purchasing fire doors from certified manufacturers and suppliers, you can be sure that the door and its components have been subjected to rigorous testing as a complete assembly at every stage from design to installation.