The Buyer’s guide to fire and smoke curtains in the UK: What you must buy and what you should buy.

Three key considerations

When buying a life-safety construction product such as fire curtains there are three key considerations:

  • Legal compliance
  • Valid third-party product certification
  • Product design – what will you get, what will your client experience with the maintenance?

1. Legal compliance

Contrary to the marketing efforts of those with a vested interest in older British standards, all vertical fire curtains with side guides are in the scope of BS EN 13241, the counterpart standard to BS EN 16034, meaning it is a legal requirement to CE mark all vertical fire curtains to it.

This is confirmed by CEN, the European Committee for Standardisation responsible for creating and publishing the harmonised standards that are legally required to be complied with under the Construction Products Regulations [full name “The Construction Products (amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020”]

Accordingly, all vertical fire curtains with side guides must legally be CE marked since 1st November 2019. The applications are not restricted to pedestrian doorsets or retail premises as some infer.

After the standard BS EN 16034 was harmonised in November 2016 and cited in OJEU, industry including manufacturers had the 3-year coexistence period (notice period) to align with the new requirements. This is where the 1st November 2019 date originates.

BS 8524-1, the older British standard, was never harmonised so cannot provide a route to CE marking (or UKCA marking) and hence legal compliance with the Construction Products Regulations.

Buying vertical fire curtains without the CE marking is a significant legacy risk and a major potential disruption and liability (replacement required). It is also a significant fire risk (no pay-out in the event of a fire by insurers). No one would personally indemnify against these risks, even those selling non-CE marked fire curtains wouldn’t indemnify you against these risks.

You can read more in two white papers that have been extensively peer and industry reviewed:

  • Fire curtain regulations in the UK1
  • Every question answered: Do operable fabric curtains (fire curtains) need to be CE marked?2

2. Valid third-party product certification

Without valid third-party certification there is increased risk that the product arriving on site is not identical to the tested specimen.

Notified Bodies (or CABs, Conformity Assessment Bodies) are the providers of third-party certification. They are the manufacturer’s ‘police’.

Imagine our roads if there were no police. Would they be safer without the police deterring speeders and those that may drive dangerously? What one driver says is safe another may deem dangerous. Likewise with life-safety products. With no ‘police’, are products safe? The difference in risk and potential for non-compliance between a product with valid third-party product certification from a Notified Body and a product without valid third-party product certification from a Notified Body is night and day.

Manufacturers face numerous pressures such as generating ROI for shareholders, repaying lenders and banks and servicing loans, staff/ management job security and bonuses, contract programmes (avoiding hefty delays), and the need to keep ahead in the market and get product to market.

If a manufacturer has valid third-party product certification from a Notified Body, they must comply with what the Notified Body has certified i.e. they have to make the products day-in, day-out the same as those audited in the last 12 months.

Conversely, if they don’t have valid third-party product certification from a Notified Body, the pressures combined with little-to-no deterrent could lead to what they deem to be a ‘safe’ deviation from the tested product.

Buying products, especially life-safety products such as fire curtains without valid third-party certification is a significant and unnecessary risk with no upsides. This risk is significant. You can read more including some scenarios where commercial pressures on manufacturers may lead to departures from the fire tested design or components in this article, How valid third-party certification reduces your risk.3

If there wasn’t a significant risk mitigation benefit of third-party certification it would quickly disappear as no one would pay the expense associated with it. Read more in the Government report, ‘Testing for a Safer Future’4.

The only product standards for fire curtains with valid third-party certification are:

  • BS EN 16034 for vertical and concertina fire curtains
  • ISO 21524 for horizontal fire curtains

Five fire-resistant tube motors. Can you see the difference? Which one/s are tested with the fire curtain? Which have which torque settings, gearbox greases, and oils? How do these differ in terms of flaming outside the headbox?

3. Product design

Ultimately, when everything is said and done on legal compliance and third-party certification (no skipping it, just make sure it is in place), you need to give your focus to the product that will be installed in the building.

The product you are buying will be what you and your client and the occupants will be relying on in the event of a fire. It is what the maintenance teams and facilities management will be dealing with on a daily and weekly basis. What is their experience likely to be? Past performance is the best predictor of future.

Fire curtains should be tested weekly so as to ensure they are in good working order and state of repair, a legal requirement of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (aka ‘FSO 2005’).

Will the product you are buying cope with this weekly testing? Laboratory cycle tests are essential but how do the products fare when fitted in site conditions to construction tolerances. What is the field evidence?

Many Architects, Fire Services, Building Control officers, Contractors, and Fire Engineers only use fire curtains as a choice of last resort despite the concept being brilliant. Why? Because of the frequency, disruption, and cost of the historic issues with the old designs. See, ‘The quiet transformation happening in the fire curtain industry5

There is a fourth consideration, ‘guidance’ (e.g. British standards BS 9999 and BS 9991).

Some manufacturers point to BS 9999 and BS 9991 still recommending the older British standard for fire curtains, BS 8524-1. As well as it being seven and nine years respectively since these guidance standards were published, and despite them both undergoing revision, there are two factors to guidance:

a) It is subservient to legal compliance (it is ‘guidance’, not law).

If guidance and regulations get out of tandem courtesy of the time between revisions and publications, Regulations (law) take priority. BSI themselves emphasise this:

“Standards aren’t the same as regulations and following a standard doesn’t guarantee that you’re within the relevant laws”.

 And

“Compliance with a British Standard cannot confer immunity from legal obligations”.

b) Guidance can get ‘dangerously out of date’.

Richard Millet, KC to the Grenfell Inquiry Overarching Statements and Module 7 Closing Statements, 10th November 2022:

 “Behind all of these discrete factors there lay… an overreliance… on guidance, some of which, including the statutory guidance, was ambiguous, dangerously out of date, and much of which was created by non-governmental bodies and influenced by commercial interests.”

NB. Manufacturers still using the old  BS 8524-1 standard say it is more robust than newer standards, and that it is dedicated to fire curtains, implying a benefit. These claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. You can read about this in our article, BS 8524: The old fire curtain standard… that doesn’t do what it says on the tin6

To learn more about fire curtains please register your place on our free RIBA accredited CPD, “Design, capabilities, characteristics and applications of fire curtains”, available here, RIBA CPD7.

References

1 Adexon Team (2023) Fire curtain regulations in the UK, Adexon Resources. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/whitepaper/fire-curtain-regulations-in-uk/.

2 Adexon Team (2023) Every question answered: Do operable fabric curtains (fire curtains) need to be CE marked?, Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/white-papers/every-question-answered/ (Accessed: 29 December 2023).

3 Adexon Team (2023) How valid third-party certification reduces your risk, Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/how-valid-third-party-certification-reduces-your-risk/ (Accessed: 29 August 2023).

4 Testing for a safer future: An independent review of the… Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/6440f2596dda69000d11e15e/Independent_Review_of_the_Construction_Product_Testing_Regime.pdf (Accessed: 30 May 2024).

5 Adexon Team (2023) The quiet transformation happening in the fire curtain industry (2023) Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/articles/the-quiet-transformation-happening-in-the-fire-curtain-industry/ (Accessed: 29 December 2023).

6 BS 8524: The old fire curtain standard… that doesn’t do what it says on the tin. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/articles/bs-8524-the-old-fire-curtain-standard/ (Accessed: 30 May 2024).

7 RIBA accredited CPD course (2024) Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/riba-accredited-cpd-course/ (Accessed: 31 May 2024).