Education of fire marshals sometimes up to locals, training centers

Mechanical Sheet Metal Company in Wyandotte, Michigan, has been functionally testing fire dampers for the last 10 years, and David Karl, president of the company, has found code and fire marshals are still unaware of the regionally adopted National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) requirements and therefore don’t enforce them, he said.

“I’ve reviewed reports where the inspections have been completed but were not done properly,” Karl said. He would like to see code and fire officials better educated on adopted NFPA requirements. “For example, during our inspections we have found dampers that have been installed upside down, yet the building owner was provided with an approved report.”

The International Fire Code, adopted in nearly every state, recognizes standards that have been developed by committees of the NFPA. The NFPA standards committee implemented its requirement for inspection frequency for fire dampers in NFPA 80: “Fire dampers shall be inspected one year after installation, every four years thereafter, except hospitals, which have a six-year inspection frequency.” NFPA 105, the standard for fire doors and other opening protectives, has similar language regarding periodic inspections.

For a company like Mechanical Sheet Metal, it is hard to compete when disreputable companies are merely filling out the paperwork and not properly completing the inspections. This becomes a safety issue, not just a bottom-line concern, Karl said.

“Honestly, I think insurance companies might be interested to know about some of what we see on the job,” he said. “This is life safety. Improperly inspected and malfunctioning fire life safety systems can cost the lives of building occupants and fire fighters.”

How do we educate code and fire officials on the importance of proper maintenance and inspection of fire dampers and enforcement of NFPA regulations? Chris Ruch, NEMI director of training, had a few recommendations.

First, all stakeholders must work within the NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem and continue to produce skilled, trained and certified technicians to perform fire and smoke damper installations and inspections while providing education and information to partners in the ecosystem.

The staff at NEMI also can provide subject matter expert opinions, resources and guidance. Contractors, local unions and technicians are encouraged to use that knowledge to help move their work — and market share of those performing the inspections correctly — forward, Ruch said.

“It is up to SMART, SMACNA, NEMI, and other stakeholders to push for local or statewide code enforcement requirements,” Ruch added. “As subject matter experts, NEMI has had success in some states and municipalities assisting regional organizations in passing legislation that requires certified technicians perform the work, which helps ensure it is being done right. These standards allow the regional fire inspectors to trust what is in the required periodic inspection report without adding to their already-impacted schedule.”

Ruch also recommended training facilities host lunch-and-learn or other educational meetings, to educate local leaders and enforcement officers on how fire and smoke dampers work and how quickly malfunctioning damper failure can exacerbate a situation, as well as how prevalent the problem is. A 2021 study by the University of Maryland found that 53% of dampers in existing buildings tested for the study were in need of repairs.

Eye-opening training and education make a difference. Attendees to past events noted they had a new understanding as to how first responders and building patrons depend on fire and smoke dampers operating as designed during an emergency.

Education is key, Ruch said. NEMI is available to help, and its staff can be contacted for information and guidance. Click here for a complete contact list for NEMI and NEMIC staff.

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