The quiet transformation happening in the fire curtain industry

Synonymous with their product

In their heyday, the name Blockbuster was synonymous with its product, much like Hoover had been in the domestic vacuum cleaners marketplace.

Indeed, such was their dominance, Blockbuster felt they could afford to “laugh [Netflix] out of the room”1 when offered Netflix for $50m in the year 2000. Only a handful of years earlier Blockbuster had been sold in a mega-deal for over $8bn.

Today the tide has very definitely turned with Blockbuster consigned to a museum place and Netflix valued at $150bn.

John Antioco, then CEO of Blockbuster, deemed Netflix a niche business and said, “the dot-com hysteria is completely overblown”.

And an even later Blockbuster CEO, Jim Keyes, famously quipped in 2008 that Netflix was “not even on the radar screen in terms of competition”.

Blockbuster had the contacts, the relationships, the stores (over 9,000), the quantity of staff, and 50 million members2; they could afford to be indifferent, they felt, to competition. They were the industry’s voice.

Indeed, the only thing Netflix really had was a better product.

Industry transformations

As we subsequently saw with the home movie marketplace, an industry will go through a step-change transition when new benefit/s become available that enhance the user’s convenience or experience.

Examples include:

  • Lighting:                  candle => light bulb
  • Personal transport: bicycle => car
  • Cameras:                  35mm film => digital
  • Mobile phones:      analogue => smart
  • Home movies:        video rental => streaming

In all the above examples those with a vested interest in the older product pushed back on the new, dismissing it as a novelty, or that they had already tried it, or that it wouldn’t work etc.

Brilliant concept – but choice of last resort

Fire curtains have long been a brilliant concept, enabling designers and architects almost unlimited freedom of design whilst still providing compartmentation in the event of a fire.

However, the fire curtain market has remained conspicuously small due to post-installation reliability and maintenance issues meaning a critical mass of momentum has always proved elusive.

Inherent failings in the traditional designs of fire curtains, especially around the fabric retention in the side guides have held the product back.

Common headaches with old designs of fire curtains:

Fire curtains manufactured using the old designs are prone to frequent failure as shown in the photos below. These are not isolated or historical incidents; we are called out to issues like this every week. Tearing of the fabric, missing retention, jamming in the side guides and failing to deploy. All have the potential to be fatal in a fire, especially the jamming issue which is the most common.

Why the problems happen

In a fire there is a pressure differential and the fabric must be secured in the side guides. Old fire curtain designs use a travelling fastener to achieve this and thus retain the fabric in the side guides. Examples of the travelling fastener used in traditional designs include a popper, or nut and bolt combination.

We can see these travelling fasteners if we ‘cut through’ the side guide of an old design (see Fig. 2)

What we find inside the side guide is a metal fastener penetrating the fire curtain fabric every 200mm or so (Fig. 3). This penetration of the fabric causes a weak point.

The next factor to consider is the fabric being a flexible material meaning it doesn’t necessarily unroll off the barrel perfectly square each time. The fabric also develops broad ‘wrinkles’ over time. These wrinkles are harmless to the performance of the curtain in a fire but means the fabric can meander to some extent along the line of travel rather than travelling perfectly square. This ‘meandering’ of the fabric leads to the travelling fasteners jamming in the aperture of the side guide, metal on metal, preventing deployment altogether.

Once the travelling fastener has jammed there is a point load on that part of the curtain fabric. As we mentioned earlier, this is also as the curtain’s weakest point. This combination leads to tearing, ripping, and loss of the retention fastener.

With the curtains needing to be tested every week along with the fire alarm, even a 1% incidence rate leads to frequent headaches for the Responsible Person.

These problems are significantly more prevalent on horizontal fire curtains due to the weight of the fabric pulling the fasteners into the side guide aperture.

Does BS 8524-1, BS 8524-2, or ISO 9001 fix these problems?

Manufacturers that haven’t yet updated their products seek to use the old British standard, BS 8524, or their ISO 9001 quality management system as a reason to keep using the old design.

We see in the next two case studies that neither the old BS 8524-1 product standard, nor the code of practice for installation, BS 8524-2, nor ISO 9001 can improve the performance of the old designs.

Case study #1

The manufacturer of these horizontal fire curtains has ISO 9001, BS 8524-1*, and BS 8524-2.

Fig. 4 Video showing a horizontal fire curtain of the old design. This is in a five-storey care home. All five floors are the same.

Case Study #2

This vertical fire curtain is from different manufacturer. They also have ISO 9001, BS 8524-1*, and BS 8524-2. This image shows the most prevalent problem referred to above – jamming in the side guides and thus failing to deploy. In a fire this would be fatal for the property and potentially fatal for any people relying on these as part of the fire strategy:

What these case studies show us is that none of these factors (ISO 9001, BS 8524 etc) can fix an inherently bad design. The case studies also show that you can have all these ‘attributes’ (ISO 9001, BS 8524 etc.) even if you have a bad design. And finally, they show that this is not a historic set of problems; these are both from 2024. We get called out to situations like this every week.

*valid BS 8524-1 third-party product certification is no longer available

The way to avoid these problems and the benefits available

Fire curtains with the new designs such as shown in Fig. 6 avoid these problems as they have addressed the root cause.

When we ‘cut-through’ the side guide of a new design fire curtain this is what we see:

There are no penetrations, no point loads, no travelling fasteners that can jam, and no rips, or gaps. Whilst simple, it really is genius (not our words).

A senior London architect, Feb 2024:

a brilliant piece of simple but effective engineering.

Great job. It addresses all the issues. So if there is a requirement for a fire curtain, yours is at the top of my list.

I will share with the rest of the office amongst those that attended the cpd. I have also placed it on the server for others to see together with the technical data you also sent me. Excellent work.

A senior UK fire engineer, Feb 2024:

the side guide design is a no brainer

In addition to solving the operational and weekly testing headaches, the above design only uses fire resistant components for smoke control. This is critically important as cold smoke seals only last seconds in a fire3.

Active fire curtains step-change

As we can see from above, a step-change transformation is currently underway in the fire curtain industry4.

Traditionally, fire curtain manufacturers have punctured holes through the fabric with bolts or poppers to provide a means of retaining the fabric in the guide channels (Fig. 3).

This method works sufficiently in a laboratory or test lab but when subject to real life production volumes, the following factors combine:

  • manufacturing tolerances,
  • fitting tolerances on site,
  • lateral movement of the fabric (it is flexible),
  • fabric not unrolling identically every time

These factors combine to give customers a number of recurringly expensive and dangerous headaches. You can read some real customer feedback and experiences on a couple of our posts on LinkedIn5+6.

Going back to our allusion to Blockbuster, we liken the old designs of fire curtains to video rentals and the new designs to Netflix’s streaming.

Puncturing bolts or poppers through the curtain fabric will disappear from the active fire curtain industry much like video rentals disappeared from the home movie sector, as more and more specifiers and buyers choose new designs like the Adexon one (Fig. 7).

NB. You can read more about why using flammable materials for smoke sealing will also soon be something of the past in our article, Are cold smoke seals in fire curtains a cause for concern?7

‘Video rental' versus ‘streaming'

Puncturing nuts and bolts or poppers through the fabric of the fire curtain (Fig. 3) is like the ‘video rental’ design of fire curtains, but worse. 

Being a life-safety product, if it jams, tears, or billows with any gaps, fire and smoke can pass through with deadly and devasting consequences.

And the fire curtain equivalent to Netflix’s ‘streaming’ is the newer designs such as seen in Fig. 7. This simple design solves the common headaches associated with active fire curtains

Recognition

It has been recognised by industry and specialists alike, and is a finalist for the London Construction Awards’, Fire Safety Solution of the Year 2023 Award8.

More than once at The Fire Safety Event and at FIREX 2023 we were asked, Who is the genius?

The Adexon Fire & Smoke Curtains team have to take the credit for this, and this too has been recognised, being short listed for the FSM Awards’ Fire Safety Team of the Year 2023.

Since Grenfell, Adexon Fire & Smoke Curtains have invested considerably to bring the best fire and smoke curtain products to market – all third-party tested with valid third-party certification to a product standard and, where applicable, all with CE marking to ensure legal compliance with the Construction Products Regulations.

Industry and consumers alike have also recognised the advantages of the Adexon products, with works awarded at a number of prestigious buildings such as St James Market, Goldman Sachs European HQ, and 100 Bishopsgate.

The Adexon journey is to make the UK the global leader for active fire curtains through quality, innovation, invention, and continuous improvement.

References

Mollman, S. (2023) Blockbuster ‘laughed us out of the room,’ recalls Netflix cofounder on trying to sell company now worth over $150 billion for $50 million, Fortune. Available at: https://fortune.com/2023/04/14/netflix-cofounder-marc-randolph-recalls-blockbuster-rejecting-chance-to-buy-it/ (Accessed: 20 December 2023).

2 Hobbs, T. (2017) From iconic to Punchline: Blockbuster’s CMO reflects on failure, Marketing Week. Available at: https://www.marketingweek.com/blockbusters-cmo-failure/ (Accessed: 20 December 2023).

3 Adexon Team (2023) The science behind cold smoke seals, Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/science-behind-cold-smoke-seals/ (Accessed: 29 August 2023).

4 Premium fire curtains & smoke curtains: Adexon UK fire safety (2023) Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/products/ (Accessed: 20 December 2023).

5 Devenish, C. (2023) ‘Active fire curtains’; your reaction?, Charles Devenish on LinkedIn: ‘Active fire curtains’; your reaction? Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:7067478452945211393/?updateEntityUrn=urn%3Ali%3Afs_feedUpdate%3A%28V2%2Curn%3Ali%3Aactivity%3A7067478452945211393%29 (Accessed: 20 December 2023).

6 Upholding Fire Safety Standards: Lessons from a recent fire curtain survey (2024) Adexon Fire and Smoke Curtains. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/articles/upholding-fire-safety-standards/ (Accessed: 29 April 2024).

7 Adexon Team (2023) Are cold smoke seals in fire curtains a cause for concern? , Adexon. Available at: https://www.adexon-uk.com/article/cold-smoke-seals-in-a-fire/.

8 2023 finalists (no date) London Construction Awards. Available at: https://www.londonconstructionawards.com/finalists (Accessed: 20 December 2023).