The importance of fire dampers within secure facilities

The threat of fire and the need to protect against it is well known and, some might say, obvious. The ways in which we prevent against it and the importance of maintaining standards, particularly in public places and in areas where there is an increased threat of fire – or increased danger to life if it does break out – are not always so obvious.

Ducts should be cleaned as often as possible

Fire dampers: Looking at a few case examples 

In buildings where a restriction of movement is imposed upon the inhabitants – for instance in a police station or detention centre, in prisons, mental health facilities and immigration centres – fire can present an extreme risk to life. Where people’s movements are restricted, fire evacuation becomes very different. It isn’t necessarily as possible to enable people to exit these buildings when they are on fire as quickly and easily as it is in other circumstances. Very necessary systems are in place to limit movement.

In these sort of situations, fire and smoke dampers come into their own. Especially in large buildings, where a large number of people need specific routes to reach the ground and safety, fire dampers can buy crucial time. This is often not entirely apparent until something tragic happens, such as in the well-documented case of the World Trade Center, where a subsequent investigation concluded that hazardous conditions on the upper floors of the buildings might have been slowed by use of adequate fire and smoke dampeners, allowing occupants more time to flee.

Fire dampers: Just how can they help?

Fire dampers are usually constructed of galvanised steel and act within the ventilation system to restrict the spread of fire and, crucially, smoke, by closing in an emergency situation. There are different kinds, depending mostly on where they will be fitted, but the most common in ventilation systems are made of galvanised steel and include some sort of spring-loaded, swing-shut door. Many facilities do not yet have the fitting of fire dampers enforced by law, but this does not mean they are not an essential addition / inclusion in any heating and ventilation system.

But beyond this, it is also important that fire dampers be inspected regularly. Depending upon the system in place, this is ideally every 1-2 years. This involves not just checking that the mechanism itself is working properly, but also the system triggering their operation. They may be linked to the fire alarm, or may have their own individual sensor primed to operate beyond a certain temperature. When combined with fans within a system, they can become an efficient way of driving toxic smoke away from the building, so must be kept in good working order.

Fire dampers buy time to evacuate a building and help protect people from the sort of noxious smoke and gases released – often in the very early stages of a fire – which present a sometimes invisible hazard to life. Although secure facilities will have efficient systems in place to deal with emergency situations like fires, even the best systems are restricted by all sorts of factors, particularly the construction and design of the building itself. Buildings designed to hold people against their will are, even with the best efforts, not always going to be the fastest buildings for getting people out of. Where a large number of people are being kept in this sort of a building, especially where they are on multiple levels, it will always take a certain amount of time to clear.

If the spread of smoke and fire can be slowed down, even if not totally prevented, then this can buy vital time while the building is cleared and the emergency services respond. There may be vulnerable people in the building, possibly suffering from health conditions which make them even more vulnerable to smoke inhalation, so anything that protects them from that – even in the circumstances where they are able to escape the building quite quickly – could very well save their lives.

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