Active fire compartmentation for sleeping quarters? A discussion.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

What if you could go to sleep at night and not worry whether you had properly closed the fire doors or not?

What if you never had to worry that someone else would open the fire doors and leave them open and forget to close them again?

Active fire compartmentation refers to a form of passive fire protection (a product that compartments and blocks the fire, as opposed to suppressing it) that works automatically when the smoke or fire alarms are triggered. It doesn’t rely on human actions or behaviour to work and provides vital fire and smoke separation safety in the event of a fire.

2. Not new, but growing

It isn’t a new idea, but it has really gained momentum.

Especially after the increasing danger of lithium-ion battery fires1, and studies showing we don’t all awake, or awake quickly enough, when the smoke alarm goes off:

Three quarters of youngsters were not woken up by an alarm in their home in an experiment by researchers and the fire service”2:

The discussion for active fire compartmentation grew after watching an incredibly illustrative video by Fire Safety Research Institute (UL Solutions), part of their “Close before you doze”3 fire safety campaign.

It certainly made me think, leading to posting a question4 on LinkedIn.

When I got home I thought, Should we shut our bedroom doors at night? What would happen to the little chap across the landing if we were cut off by fire?

It dawned on me that the perfect solution for us (and possibly a lot of people) would be for us to have an active fire curtain at the top of the stairs (in a bungalow, this could be in the corridor between sleeping area and living area).

All that would be on view day-to-day would be a narrow slot in the ceiling, and down the walls, and this could easily be architecturally minimised.

It would mean we could leave bedroom doors open by preference (or by mistake) and it would keep all sleepers safe for 2 hours in the event of a fire downstairs at night.

For standard homes: a big safety upgrade for minimal extra cost; for multiple occupancy and high rise: no more wedged open fire doors with or without broken closers (or removed the week after maintenance)

We often think it won’t happen to us, but watch the video3 by the Fire Safety Research Institute and see the severity.

Should active fire curtains be recommended e.g. in BS 9999 and/ or BS 9991, at the top of every stair case in residences?

3. Two bedrooms after a fire

This image shows two bedrooms after a fire5, one having had the door shut, the other having left it open.

You probably wouldn’t survive in the blackened bedroom.

Would you wake before the fire or smoke or gases got to you? (if you had left the bedroom door open)

Three quarters of youngsters were not woken up by an alarm in their home in an experiment by researchers and the fire service”2:

It raises the question:

Is the difference in fire safety between compartmentation or otherwise sufficient to merit using an active form of compartmentation such as an active fire curtain?

➡ Doors rely on human action or otherwise to function.
➡ Most accidents occur due to human error.
➡ Active fire curtains remove the largest contributory factor in doors not working as intended.

Fire curtains do not:

❌ get in people’s way
❌ annoy people
❌ get wedged open
❌ rely on human actions or otherwise…

In the photo you see the dramatic difference in a fire between sleeping with your door closed or open. This experiment was carried out by UL Solutions’ Fire Safety Research Institute.

4. Yet another dwelling fire

When we get yet another dwelling fire1, I immediately think, the simplest and most effective safety measure to save lives in these situations is quite likely to install active fire curtains between sleeping quarters and living quarters. It is relatively:

✔ Easily done
✔ Out of sight
✔ Low cost

Fire doors are highly effective but they get left open by mistake or by preference.

The difference in survival between compartmentation in place, or not, is dramatic6.

An active fire curtain is ‘invisible’ until needed.

✔ It doesn’t annoy anyone.
✔ It doesn’t get in anyone’s way.
✔ It doesn’t get wedged open.
✔ It works when needed and offers those extra valuable minutes, or hours, needed for sleepers to wake up and get out before being severely injured – or worse – by smoke or fire.

5. This WAS a bedroom

What you see is after a fire where the bedroom door was left open.

You probably wouldn’t survive.

Would you wake before the fire or smoke or gases got to you?

“the only child who woke up [to the smoke alarm] got out of bed to get a teddy before going back to bed and falling asleep”8

This raises the question:

Is the difference in fire safety between compartmentation or otherwise sufficient to merit using an active form of compartmentation such as an active fire curtain?

➡ Doors rely on human action or otherwise to function.
➡ Most accidents occur due to human error.
➡ Active fire curtains remove the largest contributory factor in doors not working as intended.

Fire curtains do not:

❌ get in people’s way
❌ annoy people
❌ get wedged open
❌ rely on human actions or otherwise…

6. Q&A's

We have had some questions and comments on this subject.

For example, Anthony Buck said “In principle it makes sense – however I fear cost and ongoing competent maintenance requirements would be a barrier in some sectors of housing.”

Our answer: A typical doorway size would be circa £3.5k installed, possibly significantly less if done at new build stage in large numbers. Surely not a barrier when it is such a significant improvement to life safety measures?

With regards maintenance, the key here is to use an essentially maintenance free design so there is only a basic annual visit required. You can read more about maintenance on fire curtains in our article, ‘Active fire curtain maintenance – and the 3 reasons fabric retention design matters’9

Andy Spence said “there is no silver bullet for these types of fires. We all need to work together to put a proper fire strategy together, to protect people and what you suggest should or rather could be part of that solution” and recommended “Probably best to join the Fire Industry Association SIG panel on lithium ion battery’s”

Gavin Edwards said “why not just regulate the industry so only safe scooters and batteries can be manufactured and sold?”

Answer: We fully agree, this should be a given.

What these e-scooter and e-bike fires flag up is the issue of compartmentation (or, more accurately, non-compartmentation) in dwellings (in practice).

Typically, compartmentation is commonly intended to be achieved with fire doors but due to human practice, it sometimes is not in place as designed.

An active fire curtain would take human practice largely out of the equation as a contributory factor in compartmentation not working as intended.

According to gov.uk most dwelling fires are caused by cooking appliances (45%), followed by misuse of equipment or appliances (31%). The latter category would now include the e scooters etc but it shows there are lots of fires caused by relatively well regulated appliances etc, hence the suggestion, prompted by this latest incident”

Dan Jackson asked, “I close the downstairs door in my house separating the open plan kitchen living space to the stairwell leading to the bedrooms. What about means of escape Charles?

Answer: Good point. If it is safe to re-open, an ERB (Emergency Retract Button) allows operation after deployment. Mains power can’t be relied on in a fault (fire) situation, so fire curtains are backed up by two batteries. This is one of the reasons why fire curtain servicing should include battery replacement every two years.

However, fire curtains should NOT be re-opened if there are life threatening temperatures on the other side. I only emphasise this for anyone else reading as I’m sure it is obvious for you. This is a point we make about the dangers of the hot motor test in #BS8524 that enables operation up to 400C! You can read more in our white paper ‘A technical comparison of BS EN 16034 and BS 8524’10.

Thanks for joining the debate. Raising awareness and education are two of the most effective costless ways of improving fire safety for the consumer – our common primary goal.

Gavin Edwards then asked, “but what is an active curtain?”

Our answer, also on a LinkedIn post11: Active fire curtains are the modern version of fire roller shutters.

Essentially a roll of fire resistant fabric on a barrel above the opening that drops under gravity (fail safe) to provide compartmentation when needed.

They are lighter, more compact, and quieter than roller shutters so much easier to build in (less supporting structure required, not so much space taken up). They perform to all the classifications: 120E, 120EW, and even 180Ei with a sprinkler.

They are a brilliant product and if you use the Adexon Fire & Smoke product you will not only get an essentially maintenance-free design (the only one in the UK) but also have access to the UK’s widest range of legally compliant and third party certified fire curtains.

We had so much interest for so many applications over the 3 days at FIREX and had the same at the Fire Safety Event last month.

We also have concertina configurations third party certified to the product standard BS EN 16034, and the horizontal configuration third party certified to ISO 21524 meaning the limitation of application is pretty much our imagination!

They suit so many applications and, with our simple but brilliant design, they don’t have any of the issues the older designs on the market have.

We encourage questions. By asking questions you will be raising awareness and this in turn raises standards and life safety. Someone else probably has the same questions as you so you are helping others.

Interested in learning more about the design capabilities, characteristics, and applications of fire curtains?

You can book your free RIBA accredited CPD online12 or drop a line to the team.

Mike Floyd asked, “…the scenario painted seems to imply the fire is well past the detection stage, as you fear being ‘cut off’ from little Johnny. The fire curtain would need to be activated by some form of detection. If you had ignored/left to rot the primary life safety detection/alarms, why is this extra feature going to be especially functional/useful?

Answer: I don’t know about everyone but I’m a pretty deep sleeper so would be very glad that the primary detection had activated the fire curtain rather than relying on me waking up straight away. When I eventually wake up after 5 minutes or more of alarm, at least we have another hour or two to get out. Otherwise the smoke could seriously harm us before we even know anything. Does that answer your query?

Mike Floyd replied with a further point to consider “the point of the primary detection is to alert you to an early stage release of smoke – not a raging fire which needs a full fire curtain to contain it. It also would be blocking the escape in one direct at least! If your own current sounder system is not waking you up for 5 minutes, you should seriously consider more alarms/sounders, or beacons and a vibrating pillow.”

Answer: Possibly more alarms could help, but UL Solutions and Fire Safety Research Institute campaign ‘Close before you doze’ would suggest alarms aren’t enough? Our point is that some may forget to close their doors, or not want to particularly, and a fire curtain is a solution to both of those scenarios whilst still achieving the compartmentation.

It is a good point you make about escape. However, if the fire is raging the other side of a closed fire curtain you do not want to attempt to escape that way. Mike, Ref your escape question, Adexon Fire & Smoke are in discussions with Global Fire Equipment about developing a ‘Public Retract Button’ for when it is safe for anyone to open a deployed curtain (using smoke and heat sensing on the blind side), and then changing the ‘Emergency Retract Button’ so only the emergency services can use it – if they want to.

I believe this is another area where we are pioneering better fire curtain products. FYI, we believe we are already:

Ø the first in the UK to use only fireproof components for smoke sealing,

Ø the only company currently guaranteeing to only sell third party certified products throughout 2023,

Ø the only company not using bolts and poppers to retain the fabric – bolts and poppers cause tears in the fabric.

We don’t protect these ideas or keep them secret as we are happy for others to follow suit as it improves life safety for everyone; the ultimate goal of all of us in the industry.

You can see a bit more on this in our summary brochure13.

We are very grateful to Gavin Edwards for his excellent questions – others probably have the same questions.

Another one, “I’m less than convinced that having a fire curtain in a residential property – in particular a rented occupancy is a good idea. I can see how furniture could block operation, and issues if it’s not maintained. And what if you get caught on the fire side of the curtain and can’t escape to the exit door?”

Answers:Good questions.
1) furniture blocking operation – this is possibly a bigger concern in commercial (boxes, unwanted trolleys etc). It is overcome by an Obstacle Detection Warning which is an audible alarm that reminds users to remove the obstruction

2) issues if not maintained – yes, this is the biggest challenge but isn’t unique to fire curtains. Everything related to life safety should be maintained but I realise this is easier said than done. In larger blocks or where there are PAPs/ RPs this shouldn’t be a problem. Additionally, if an essentially maintenance-free design of fire curtain is used then it is far more likely to operate than not, even 10 years down the road with no maintenance (it is gravity fail safe close). I wouldn’t want to take the risk of not maintaining them but an e.g. 90%+ chance of it closing and saving you is better than 50% or less chance from a fire door being left open etc

3) getting caught on the fire side – the fire curtains have an Emergency Retract Button, and Battery Back Up so as not to rely on mains power. These BBUs can provide from 30 minutes up to 6 hours power (customer preference). If you are caught on the fire side, hit the ERB, escape, and the fire curtain will auto redeploy after you”

Alan Cox asked, “Any idea of cost in a domestic situation and have you ever provided one? Regards Alan

Answer: Hello, yes, we have. Tom Bigwood, could you give a ball-park figure on this, a fire curtain at the top of the stairs, head box above 2.4m ceiling?

Tom replied, Hello Alan Cox You would be looking about 4.5k fully installed for a 2.5m by 2.5m Fire Curtain with smoke seals.

Gavin Edwards went on to ask, “this sort of installation works in a commercial environment where use and function are policed, and possibly in privately owed flats. I can see it in rental social housing especially where you might have occupants who don’t have a good grasp of this technology – and those whose grasp of written and spoken English is limited – if it beeps then it’s likely to get switched off”

Answer: “More good points. The only interaction of the occupant with the fire curtain would be if and when they leave something in the way.

This would be a small % of the time. If we said 1% the probability is 0.01.

If you multiply that % by the small % that are unable to understand, or unwilling, say 1% again, the probability at any time is 0.01 X 0.01 =0.0001.

Obviously these numbers are unknown and could be much greater but even multiplying the probability by 1000X to give 0.1 (10%), it is still 90% of people and applications that are protected at any given time.

There aren’t many perfect or absolute solutions and this one has to be right near the top in terms of probability of doing what it needs to do when needed. Certainly, it is multiply higher than fire doors which are dependent on human behaviour and errors, and interacted with by everyone every day.

NB. The option to switch the fire curtain off can be designed to be engineer accessible only, and in multiple occupancy, or any environment, could be linked back to a management panel to alert an RP etc in the event of tampering.”

I shared the ’Two bedrooms after a fire’ post with Andy Frankum and asked Chartered Institute of Housing, if it would be helpful if we did a talk on it at Housing 2023.

Andy Frankum’s reply was “You make some interesting points Charles. Yes you are right about young people. They are more likely to respond to a mobile phone alert than a smoke alarm, so can you imagine if we could like smoke detectors to an app on your phone. Likewise we know when compartmentation is not present how significant the impact can be. Innovation and fresh thinking is good. I’ve seen a number is examples like when the P50 extinguisher came out or misting instead of sprinkler. All have their uses in the right context. The use of fire curtains is another one. Could they be used alongside other measures than the traditional use! I’ve raised the point on our network and could highlights how we can innovate and use products that normally we think about in isolation. Really good to see the setup at firex and the conversation about how curtains could be installed in a way that integrate into the building. Keep up the good work to shine a light on challenging the status quo.

Thanks Andy.

I replied to say, Going by oneself, it’s not just youngsters that sleep through a fair few minutes of a smoke alarm!

At Adexon Fire & Smoke we always apply the test, would you give this advice to your own family? Is it safety-first?

This solution certainly ticks those boxes.

If there are any people you would recommend reaching out to specifically on this subject, let me know and we’d be happy to facilitate discussion. We are big believers in open debate leading to advances, as ideas can be challenged and examined for flaws and impracticalities, with the good and practical progressing. And cross-pollination of ideas leads to solutions previously thought impossible.

Thanks for popping by at FIREX , it certainly was an excellent show.

To which Andy replied, Charles Devenish yes completely agree. I’ll put a note out to the network and start some discussion. This sounds like a panel discussion too in the future 😀 will keep you posted.

An example of when doors are wedged open was given to us by Ellie Luker in this post14

“Severe Door Wedge Damage

Do Not Wedge Open Fire Doors! Doing so not only damages the leaf but prevents the door from forming an effective fire compartment.”

We replied to say, Well flagged up Ellie. Doors being wedged open is one of the reasons we are advocating for active fire curtains being used for compartmentation between sleeping quarters and living areas (where the fires mostly start).

 

All further questions are welcomed, and if you would like to join any of the conversations on LinkedIn here are the links:

This article was written on 12th June 2023 by Charles Devenish. It includes personal views and its intention is to raise awareness and standards in the fire safety industry.

If you have a question for the team or would like to give feedback on this article or find out more, please get in touch.

7. References

1 Devenish, C. (2023) Watch: E-scooter explodes and fire engulfs room. Available at: https://bit.ly/3J0WlhH .

2 Law, S. (2019) Three quarters of children would sleep through a standard smoke alarm, Mail Online. Available at: https://lnkd.in/eMp5bDgP .

3 Williams, J. (2022) Close before you doze, Close Before You Doze | UL’s FSRI – Fire Safety Research Institute. Available at: https://lnkd.in/eZgtVx9U .

4 Devenish, C. (2023a) Compartmentation for sleeping quarters?, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn at: https://bit.ly/SleepSafe-WithActiveFireCurtains .

5 Devenish, C. (2023b) Two bedrooms after a fire – one having had the door shut, the other having left it open, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn at: https://bit.ly/3P7v2WR .

6 Devenish, C. (2023a) Compartmentation for sleeping quarters?, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn at: https://lnkd.in/e3iz8X6Z .

7 Devenish, C. (2023c) This WAS a bedroom…, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn at: https://bit.ly/3JanChP .

8 Majid, A. (2019) ‘children sleep through alarms’ BBC programme finds, BBC News. Available at: https://lnkd.in/e4HJ3yYB .

9 Adexon Team (2023) Active fire curtain maintenance – and the 3 reasons fabric retention design matters, Why fabric design on fire smoke curtains matters a lot. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/article/why-fabric-retention-design-on-fire-smoke-curtains-matters-a-lot/.

10 Adexon Team (2023b) A technical comparison of BS EN 16034 and BS 8524. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/whitepaper/technical-comparison-of-bsen16034-bs8524/.

11 Devenish, C. (2023e) What is an active fire curtain?, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn: #cpd #cpdtraining #cpdpoints #riba #educate #education #educateyourself… Available at: https://lnkd.in/e8BXttgN (Accessed: 27 June 2023).

12 Adexon (2023) RIBA accredited CPD course , Design capabilities, characteristics, and applications of fire curtains​. Available at: https://lnkd.in/e8RrY3Q6 .

13 Adexon (2026) Adexon Full Brochure, Full Product Brochure. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/04/Adexon-Full-Brochure-230426-min.pdf .

14 Luker, E. (2023) Severe Door Wedge Damage, Ellie Luker on LinkedIn: #firedoors #firedoorsafety #firesafety #firedoorinspection. Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ellie-luker-883a3415b_firedoors-firedoorsafety-firesafety-activity-7067238804222304256-2DWh?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_desktop .