Inspection of fire and smoke dampers in an HVAC system ensures a safe route for first responders and building occupants. But ensuring fire and smoke dampers are inspected on a regular basis in each state is a safety issue for the entire HVAC contracting industry.
Inspections ensure dampers and smoke control systems are in compliance with the International Fire Code. Damper and system failure due to mechanical issues; obstacles that keep dampers from closing; and lack of movement can drive smoke to back up into occupant rooms, causing occupants to suffer from smoke inhalation.
In 1980, a fire broke out at the MGM Grand (now Bally's Las Vegas) in Paradise, Nevada, killing 85 people. The fire remains one of the worst incident's in the state's history. Even more tragic was that the deaths could have been largely prevented had a working fire life safety system been in place to prevent smoke from through the building's HVAC system.
Dampers keep fire and smoke from traveling from room to room, allowing occupants a way out and first responders a safe way in. If they’re not inspected, they fail. And, as seen in the MGM Fire in Las Vegas 40 years ago this year, dysfunctional fire and smoke dampers take lives.
After three years of work with state and local leaders, Western Washingtong Sheet Metal Local 66 recently celebrated a law requiring fire and smoke inspections by International Certification Board-certified TABB technicians. Fire and smoke dampers must be inpected every four years (six years in hospitals) and every six months to one year, depending on the system, for smoke control systems in accordance with the International Fire Code.
Washington joins New Mexico and Nevada as one of only three states nationwide that have passed similar statewide legislation that requires the inspection of fire and smoke dampers in commercial HVAC systems. The legislation will take effect on July 1, 2021.
Support for the legislation was gained from the Washington State Building Trades, the Washington State Labor Council and the Western Washington Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ Association (SMACNA) in addition to non-union heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) contractors and other building crafts.
However, getting all states on board with fire life safety is a matter of education, says representatives from the National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC). Here, NEMIC chief technology officer Soph Davenberry and director of training Scott Hammond discuss what it will take to make fire life safety a priority.
Buildings have been unoccupied in states for some months due to shelter in place. Before going back to work, should these buildings be tested and inspected again?
Davenberry: Absolutely. There are a number of checks for building owners to consider prior to re-occupancy, especially since the occupant loads might be different than pre-pandemic design and use patterns. We encourage the use of the ASHRAE Building Readiness Checklist: https://www.ashrae.org/technical-resources/building-readiness. While fire life safety systems are not called out specifically, consideration for what automated cycles (such as for smoke control systems) verses stagnant conditions (such as dampers closed for long periods of time) may have brought about is key to ensuring those systems will operate as needed once the building is open again. Plus, if there are areas that are difficult to access during occupancy, now is an ideal time for certified technicians to get into those areas, provided the necessary cautions for worker, contractor, and owner safety are followed.
How, when and where are sheet metal apprentices usually educated about the fire life safety inspection process? And, in your opinion, does there need to be more nationwide work educating sheet metal workers about the importance of fire life safety?
Davenberry: Many training areas and JATCs (training centers) include fire life safety curriculum as part of their core apprenticeship programs, complemented with taking certification exams at the appropriate points as early as the second or third year. A strength of the fire life safety program — including Fire Smoke Damper (FSD) and Smoke Control Systems (SCS) — is they tap into the skills of all our sheet metal members. So, any member can take the training and the certification exams at any point in their career.
The International Training Institute (ITI) and the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI) have their training available online. The fire sprinkler industry has done a great job in bringing its solution even to the individual residence market, and the fire protection industry is pretty good at reviewing those reports to ensure the suppression systems are regularly inspected.
We have an advantage at the moment with awareness of Indoor Air Quality, so drawing the parallel with how smoke control systems ensure egress and staging areas for both building occupants and fire event response are clear of smoke is something every member of the sheet metal and HVAC community could speak to. In this context, heroes save lives, and it is our dampers that save heroes.
How could it be possible that there are only three states with such legislation? What is preventing this life-saving legislation from passing in other states?
Hammond: Currently, there have only been three states (New Mexico, Nevada and Washington) to introduce and successfully pass a statewide bill that requires training or certification to perform the periodic inspections of fire dampers, smoke dampers and smoke control systems. There is a need for more fire life safety legislation to ensure properly trained technicians, supervisors and contractors are performing this work.
Thousands of buildings across the country are left with inoperable fire and smoke dampers, which puts people’s lives at risk. These are the lives of the building’s occupants and the fire responders. Legislation like this in Washington and other states is very important.
The National Energy Management Institute Committee (NEMIC) is a not-for-profit organization jointly funded by the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA) and SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. NEMIC identifies opportunities, seeking to create or expand employment for SMART members and programs that assist SMACNA contractors.