FIGURE 1. Communication wires extend through the fire damper. A board was in-serted in the damper opening to allow space for wires to pass through, both of which will cause damper failure.

It’s impossible to put a price on life. However, the fact that sometimes it must be done should be a further motivator to owners and engineers to get fire/smoke protection right. Revisit the past and then skip to the present, where one firm’s proactive ap-proach meets standards, simplifies design and maintenance, and even reduces labor costs.

Building owners, managers, and industry professionals widely recognize that fire dampers, smoke dampers, and combination fire/smoke dampers are essential to any active fire protection and smoke control system. People responsible for these systems understand the purpose of these dampers. They know that fire dampers are closed by the presence of heat (which physically severs a fusible link), and smoke dampers are closed by a signal from a smoke detector or building control system. Failure to understand the applicable codes and standards and implement the inspection, testing, and maintenance requirements can be tragic and result in the loss of life and property.


When examining the World Trade Center disaster, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Investigation of Active Fire Pro-tection Systems Smoke Control Systems Sub-Tasks report said, “Installation of combina-tion fire/smoke dampers in HVAC ductwork, which was not required in WTC 1 or WTC 2, would have acted to slow the development of hazardous conditions on the uppermost floors of the building ... .”1Everything considered, the built environment does not compare to the World Trade Center, but the NIST report clearly points to the advantage of combination fire/smoke dampers in confining the effects of combustion products.

Prior to the World Trade Center disaster, the MGM Grand Hotel fire, Nov. 21, 1980, in Las Vegas, resulted in the deaths of 85 hotel guests and employees. About 600 others were injured and approximately 35 firefighters sought medical attention during and after the fire.2The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) investigation of the incident found:

“HVAC systems operated during the fire and contributed to smoke spread through the high-rise tower. The equipment, as far as could be determined, was not equipped with smoke detectors arranged to shut down the systems upon sensing products of combus-tion. In addition, some fire dampers were arranged so that they could not close when fusible links melted, and others did not close completely. High-rise tower corridors were utilized for supply air to guests rooms; this arrangement contributed to smoke movement in corridors and exposure to guests rooms.”3

FIGURE 2. Cable trays, such as these, extending through the fire damper will cause damper failure.

The NFPA report identified the negligence to ensure damper compliance and empha-sized the need for a comprehensive program for identification of damper types, their rating, locations, accessibility, inspection, functional testing, and maintenance. Failing to ensure that dampers are installed and maintained according to the manufacturer’s instructions, the equipment listing, and nationally recognized codes and standards, may lead to liability and years of litigation in the event of life loss or injury.

While acknowledging that no amount of money can compensate for the death of a loved one, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission developed formulas for determining human losses. The study used $5 million per death and $166,000 per in-jury as 1993 values, and then used the Consumer Price Index to calculate corre-sponding values for later years for injuries only. The value of statistical life in 1980 was estimated at $1 million. While the value was based on practices of that time, it creates a much larger difference from the 1997 value of a statistical life than would be inferred from inflation alone.4

An article in Variety, the weekly entertainment business magazine, reported that total funds awarded to victims (e.g., injured survivors and families of fatal victims) of the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire had reached $113 million and were expected to reach $152 to $160 million once all claims were settled.5While contributing factors related to dampers at the MGM Grand were not solely responsible for the loss of life and injuries, the NFPA confirms that building owners, managers, and industry professionals must take proactive measures to ensure compliance to minimize the risks and liability.


Every building owner and person responsible for design, specification, installation and inspection, testing, and maintenance must be thoroughly familiar with the applicable codes and standards that apply to a particular building and occupancy. While this article is not all inclusive of the provisions relative to dampers, it is important to understand the purpose of NFPA 90A, Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems, 2002 edition:

“This standard shall prescribe minimum requirements for safety to life and property from fire. These requirements shall be intended to accomplish the following:
  • Restrict the spread of smoke through air duct systems within a building or into a building from the outside.
  • Restrict the spread of fire through air duct systems from the area of fire origin, whether located within the building or outside.
  • Maintain the fire-resistive integrity of building components and elements such as floors, partitions, roofs, walls, and floor- or roof-ceiling assemblies affected by the in-stallation of air duct systems.
  • Minimize the ignition sources and combustibility of the elements of the air duct sys-tems.
  • Permit the air duct systems in a building to be used for the additional purpose of emergency smoke control.6
It is also important to understand the damper terms as published in NFPA 90A:
  • Fire  damper. A device, installed in an air distribution system, designed to close auto-matically upon detection of heat, to interrupt migratory airflow, and to restrict the passage of flame.
  • Smoke  damper. A device within the air distribution system to control the movement of smoke.
  • Combination fire and smoke damper. A device that meets both the fire damper and smoke damper requirements.”7

FIGURE 3. A service opening access door for inspection, testing, and maintenance of the damper rendered inaccessible due to wall construction.

Building owners, managers, and industry professionals must be familiar with the codes and standards legally adopted in the jurisdiction. As an example, some of the requirements of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, 2006 edition mandate that, “Air-conditioning, heating, ventilating ductwork, and related equipment, including smoke dampers and combination fire and smoke dampers, shall be installed in accordance with NFPA 90A, Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems.”8

NFPA 90A also provides for exceptions to installation requirements for dampers. An example is described in section, “Smoke dampers shall not be required in health care occupancies where exempted by NFPA 101, Life Safety Code.”9 This ex-ception for health care occupancies include dampers in duct penetrations of smoke barriers in fully ducted HVAC systems where an approved, supervised automatic sprinkler system has been provided for smoke compartments adjacent to the smoke barrier.

The 2006 edition of the International Building Code® mandates that fire dampers shall comply with the requirements of UL 555 Standard for Fire Dampers. Smoke dampers shall comply with the requirements of UL 555S Standard for Smoke Dampers. Combination fire/smoke dampers shall comply with the requirements of both UL 555 and UL 555S.10 For a better understanding of dampers relative to Underwriters Laboratories obtain a copy of UL Marking Guide for Dampers for Fire Barrier and Smoke Applications and Ceiling Dampers Marking and Application Guide.11

As mentioned earlier, building owners, managers, and industry professionals should apply the maintenance provisions of NFPA 90A, Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems, 2002 edition. Section 5.4.7 requires the follow-ing:
“At least every four years, the following maintenance shall be performed:
  • Fusible links (where applicable) shall be removed.
  • All dampers shall be operated to verify that they close fully. Note the cable trays and wires extending through the dampers in the examples pictured.
  • The latch, if provided, shall be checked.
  • Moving parts shall be lubricated as necessary.”12

For health care organizations accredited by The Joint Commission, all smoke and fire dampers installed on or after Jan. 1, 2008, must be operated one year after their in-stallation. In addition, for hospitals and critical access hospitals, The Joint Commission extended the time frame from four years to six years for the ongoing testing of fire and smoke dampers to ensure that they fully close.

“While performing above-ceiling inspections for the Statement of Conditions™ for hos-pitals throughout the country, we continue to find damper deficiencies that pose risk to life and property,” said Jason Jones, a compliance and facilities management consultant at Smith Seckman Reid, Inc. (SSR), a Nashville-based engineering design and facility consulting firm. “Now is the time for building owners and managers to take every precaution necessary to insure damper compliance.”

In combination with prescribed inspection, testing, and maintenance procedures, an “Above Ceiling” permit works well to ensure existing dampers are installed and operate properly, penetrations are sealed, and the service opening is not restricted. All newly in-stalled above ceiling work should be inspected and tested to ensure the protective meas-ures required by NFPA 90A function when needed to restrict the spread of fire and smoke. The permit allows contractors and maintenance  personnel to be accountable for their work. Any deviations or problems should be corrected prior to issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy or project acceptance.


SSR teamed with the The Medical Center, Inc. in Columbus, GA, to implement a proactive damper program that identifies the specifics of all required dampers and their locations within the facility. Using mechanical drawings, the Compliance and Facilities Management team at SSR initially identified the required dampers based on requirements of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code for health-care occupancies. Then the team developed a method of identifying fire dampers, smoke dampers, and combination fire/smoke dampers and indicated those locations on AutoCAD drawings. The color-coded drawing offers a simple user-friendly way to verify required dampers for inspection, testing and maintenance.

 “We wanted to find a way to identify the locations of our dampers that was simple and very understandable through the replacement of the mechanical drawings that had been used for many years,” said Brian D. Laverty, vice president of Support Services at The Medical Center, Inc.

Each damper is represented on the drawing by a unique identifier that corresponds to an Excel worksheet, detailing the specifics of each damper. Through these efforts, SSR and the staff at The Medical Center, Inc. identified a substantial number of dampers that could be eliminated while still maintaining compliance with the applicable codes and standards. This resulted in substantial labor and maintenance savings for The Medical Center.

Greater awareness of the life and property protection value of fire dampers, smoke dampers, and combination fire/smoke dampers results in a comprehensive damper program and minimizes the risks to life and property and reduces liability. The tragic consequences of fire can be much more costly than taking time and effort to ensure compliance. No amount of money can compensate for the loss of a loved one, and the overall economical and physiological impact can be too much for an organization to bear. Negligence is not an option for life safety!ES


1. Ferreira, Michael J., Steven M. Strege, “Project #4: Investigation of Active Fire Pro-tection Systems of the World Trade Center Disaster Smoke Control Systems Sub-Task,” (NCSTAR 1-4D), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD,, September 14, 2005:21.

2. National Fire Protection Association, “Investigation of the MGM Grand Hotel Fire,” fname=FIMGMGRAND.pdf&src=nfpa:49.

3. op. cit.

4. Hall, John R., “The Total Cost of Fire in the United States,” NFPA Fire Analysis & Research, Quincy, MA, February 2008:19-20.

5. op. cit.

6. National Fire Protection Association, “NFPA 90A, Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems,” Quincy, MA, 2002.

7. op. cit.

8. National Fire Protection Association, “NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®,” Quincy, MA, 2006.
9. op. cit.

10. International Code Council, Inc., “International Building Code®,” Country Club Hills, IL, 2006.

11. Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., UL Marking Guide for Dampers for Fire Barrier and Smoke Applications and Ceiling Dampers Marking and Application Guide,

12. op. cit.