Keeping Buildings Safe With Working Fire & Smoke Dampers

Keeping buildings safe from the threat of fire is a responsibility we all share as fire code inspectors, fire and smoke damper inspectors, building owners, and facility managers. Our overriding goal should be the prevention of 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 National Fire Protection Association stated in it's 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."

Another 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.

These are just a few examples of how tragic and devastating a large scale fire can be. Fires occur every day in the United States - fires that in some cases could be prevented, or at the very least lessened by properly working dampers.

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 inspect their dampers every four years as required by NFPA 90A. The reasons for this vary, but most often it is due to a lack of manpower in the building's facilities management department. But for those of us in the business of fire prevention, we need to ask ourselves if this is in the best interest of safety.

Less frequent testing of dampers (or in some cases never testing them at all) will most certainly lead to higher failure rates, putting buildings in greater risk of extensive damage and potential loss of life should a fire occur.

Life Safety Services inspects more than 150 hospitals and other facilities a year and sees an approximate failure rate of 10-percent in dampers - and these are dampers that are inspected and maintained on a regular basis. If inspected less frequently, we are likely to see this rate increase. Even the top damper manufacturers, (Ruskin, Greenheck and Nailor) recommend testing and inspection of dampers every six 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 we should be working to maintain and even strengthen the current codes and standards used to inspect the fire dampers at facilities.

  • The failure rates of fire dampers are still high.
  • Dampers have been tied to preventing the spread of toxic fumes in the event of a terrorist attack.
  • Fire 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.

There is no question that properly installed, inspected and maintained fire dampers will save lives and money. If, as fire prevention personnel, we allow codes to be loosened, we will surely see the effects in a rise in fatalities and costs associated with building fires. The prevention of large scale fires is the only way to ensure the safety of those who live, work, heal and play in these facilities.

Craig Rutledge is a partner of Life Safety Services, LLC, which specializes in the inspection of fire and smoke dampers at facilities throughout the United States. Rutledge is a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, NADCA Certified "Air Systems Cleaning Specialist", and Certified Mold Remediator." Life Safety Services is a member of the NFPA, ASHE, IAQA, and NADCA. He can be reached at 1-888-675-4519, or by e-mail at: