From the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 to the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in 1942 and the high-rise fire at MGM Grand in 1980, fire has always been a topic of concern for enterprises, organizations and society as a whole. While these tragedies have had unfathomable injury and death tolls, these and other fire tragedies have also brought a greater awareness of fire and life safety and fire protection product development into the world.

With every error and misstep from these tragedies comes an opportunity to learn how to do better for building occupants. Safety organizations and manufacturers of fire-resistant building products have gained greater knowledge to create safer spaces. Standards have been developed from best practices and implemented through hard-working volunteer committees to save lives, along with the development of products that slow progression of fire, deadly smoke, and toxic gases – giving occupants the critical extra time to get to safety.

Though the process and products for fire safety have improved over the decades, the attention over fire safety regulatory measures continues. Since the 1800s, active fire protection, such as automatic sprinkler systems and passive resistance building construction, which compartmentalizes fires, have been part of fire safety standards. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was established in 1896 to develop guidelines for implementing fire protection systems and create standards and codes to enforce their use.

Standards provide guidelines for enforceable codes.

The NFPA 80 standard harkens back to 1916, when it was known as The Committee on Protection of Openings in Walls and Partitions. The formal name was adopted in 1959 and is recognized as one of the most important fire protection standards ever created. It regulates the installation and maintenance of opening protectives in walls, including all fire rated doors. NFPA 80 embraces the compartmentalization design practices within buildings to prevent the spread of fire, referred to as “passive” fire protection. It is a significant life-saving standard and has always been an integral part of International Building Code (IBC) and other model building codes.

The NFPA 80 standard is typically updated every three years. The current iteration of the standard requires inspections when the initial door installation is complete, after any subsequent maintenance is performed, and on an annual basis. The IBC, a part of the International Code Council (ICC), which is the leading source of codes, standards, and building safety solutions worldwide, promotes adherence to NFPA 80 through The International Fire Code (IFC).

In the early 1990s, rolling door and closure manufacturers began moving away from doors that required a release of tension to close and were difficult to reset. This simple move launched a new era in rolling fire door performance that continues to this day. In fact, the International Door Association (IDA) found that up to 60% of installed fire doors might not close after being activated because they weren’t reset properly.  

Once leading manufacturers became aware of this statistic, they moved to modernize fire doors to close automatically and self-reset, making the responsibility of owning and maintaining them less arduous. The effect is two-fold: with fewer complicated release systems, the doors operate with a much higher degree of reliability in the event of a fire and they are easier for technicians to test and reset properly, increasing the likelihood of testing frequency.

Proper protection systems compartmentalize fire.

Building owners and code officials must make sure their doors operate properly while also replacing malfunctioning doors.

Correctly enforced fire codes based on NFPA 80 would have helped prevent the spread of the toxic smoke and fire that consumed Sofa Super Store in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007. The fire killed nine firefighters – the highest number of firefighter fatalities in a single event since 9/11. Authorities determined that in addition to the high fuel loads, a lack of sprinklers throughout the building and other oversights contributed to the tragedy, including four fire-activated roll up fire doors that were activated but did not close during the fire.

As a result, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) made 11 recommendations for improving building, occupant and firefighter safety nationwide. The NIST stressed the adoption and strict adherence of national model building and fire safety codes by state and local governments.

Properly installed and well-maintained fire rated doors prevent the spread of fire and smoke from 45 minutes to four hours, depending on the door’s rating. This gives occupants more time to reach safety, decreases property loss and helps prevent dangerous situations for firefighters.

Rolling steel doors must be tested to the UL 10B standard to acquire a fire protection listing and be sold as a labeled product. To achieve this rating, the door must withstand one to four hours of heat of up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit followed by a hose stream impact test while staying in place without any visible damage or breaks that could allow the passage of fire.

Understanding fire protection ratings and selecting the correct door can become a highly technical undertaking. Fortunately, manufacturers offer in-house expertise and resources to help architects and owners select the correct fire rated door for each area of the building.

Smoke mitigation saves more lives.

According to the NFPA, most fire deaths are caused by smoke inhalation, not by burns. Smoke incapacitates people so quickly they aren’t able to reach an accessible exit. Synthetic materials are common in most buildings and release lethal toxins into the air when burned. One goal of life safety planners is to create an optimum 20-minute window to enable people in a building fire to exit or find a tenable space, such as a stairwell, before smoke inhalation becomes a major issue.

The 1980 MGM Grand fire in Las Vegas, Nevada drew attention to the effects of toxic smoke spreading throughout a high-rise building. Of the 85 people who died in the fire, 80 of them were killed by smoke inhalation. While the building’s lack of sprinkler systems in critical areas contributed to the fire’s spread, most lives could have been saved if systems had also been in place to suppress the spread of smoke and toxic gases.

The MGM Grand fire could have been less deadly with proper enforcement of local building codes. It was a wake-up call for manufacturers and builders. It helped them recognize the importance of mitigating the spread of smoke during a fire to save lives.

After years of research and development, they have manufactured new products that specifically help isolate and contain smoke, including elevator hoistway smoke doors. These doors have a separate film or curtain that drops in front of the elevator car door when smoke is detected. It prevents smoke from drifting up the elevator shaft and spreading throughout the building. Architects and designers who specify elevator hoistway smoke doors eliminate the need for an elevator lobby to trap smoke, making these curtains an aesthetically pleasing option.

Elevator hoistway smoke doors and fire doors used to control the spread of smoke must be tested and listed to UL 1784 test requirements. This listing is the standard for measuring air leakage of door assemblies. It measures the air infiltration at elevated temperatures to ensure the door has the capability to reduce the amount of smoke that passes through it to acceptable levels.

In addition to UL 1784, standards supporting elevator hoistway smoke doors are addressed in NFPA 105. This standard was introduced in 1985 to describe the installation and requirements for door assemblies used to protect against the spread of smoke. Just like NFPA 80, NFPA 105 is enforced by the IBC through the IFC.

Look to the future with fire safety education.

Bringing new products to market – such as new smoke mitigation systems – can take up to four years, and top manufacturers participate in organizations like the NFPA and IBC to proactively interpret, revise and develop standards and codes. New, unfamiliar products require a great deal of diligence and persistence to introduce, but manufacturers are committed to saving lives and property through advancements in design.

Protecting against the spread of smoke is the next line of defense. Rolling door manufacturers are taking every opportunity to educate building designers, building owners and fire protection professionals about the importance of curtailing smoke mitigation. Manufacturers want to ensure this group collectively understands the importance of proper implementation of fire protection products to enable them to improve overall life safety and property protection.

Fire will continue to make indelible marks on history for better and worse: Worse because of the lives affected and lost and damages that occur, but better through helping those concerned with life safety learn more about safer products and practices. Organizations such as the NFPA and DASMA equip fire protection systems manufacturers with regulatory standards to test and certify products, ultimately saving lives. By acknowledging local codes and standards and properly equipping, testing, and repairing fire protection systems, building owners and fire protection professionals can better ensure occupant life safety and help prevent future tragedies.