Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on May 31, 2022.

Door Dilemma  

Hospital and code officials had hoped that new research would help solve a long-simmering debate on fire door gaps. The findings have only led to more questions.


Hospital officials, codemakers, and other stakeholders were hopeful that the results of a much-anticipated research project on fire doors would bring clarity to an issue that has proven both contentious and costly for health care facilities across the country.

Instead, the study’s findings, which will be published in May by the Fire Protection Research Foundation, seem to ensure that the impasse will persist for the foreseeable future.

RELATED ARTICLE“Mind the Gap,” January/February 2019 NFPA Journal

At the heart of the matter is a provision in NFPA 80, Standard for Fire Doors and Other Protective Openings, which states that the space, or gap, between a fire-door sill and the floor can be no more than three-quarters of an inch. If an inspector finds that the gap is too wide by as little as a sixteenth of an inch, rules administered by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services give the facility 60 days to fix it or risk losing its accreditation.

Since most health care facilities contain hundreds of fire doors—many installed in wide and slightly uneven corridors—complying to such low tolerances is nearly impossible and requires exorbitant sums of money, health care officials say. Many would like to see the maximum gap allowance expanded to 1 inch. “A lot of people don’t understand that doors and buildings themselves are almost living, breathing things—they expand and contract, and as the doors get worn they adjust themselves,” said Chad Beebe, the deputy executive director of American Society for Health Care Engineering (ASHE) and a member of the NFPA 80 technical committee. “When you’re talking about sixteenth-of-an-inch tolerances, those shifts are enough for a perfectly compliant door on day one to be noncompliant in just a couple of weeks. You could have a dedicated full team of staff to check doors monthly and still not be able be 100 percent compliant. It’s just the nature of it.”

While many code officials are sympathetic to that argument, they worry that permitting larger gaps could defeat the purpose of the fire doors by potentially allowing smoke and flames to spread throughout the hospital in the event of a fire, said Keith Pardoe, a fire door consultant and the chair of the technical committee that oversees NFPA 80. “I know some are in the camp that we should increase the allowances at the bottom of a door to an inch or even an inch and a quarter,” he said. “But the committee has been reluctant to make any changes to the standard until we have some data that supports it and shows that any change we make is safe.”

In 2019, the NFPA 80 committee asked the Fire Protection Research Foundation to help it get that data. During two years of starts and stops due to the COVID pandemic, researchers conducted a series of 13 fire tests on a variety of single and swinging double fire doors, some hung with the allowable three-quarter-inch gap under the sill, and some with larger 1-inch gaps.


The Effect of Door Gap Size on the Efficacy of Swinging Fire Doors
Tuesday, June 7, 9:15–10:15 a.m.
Keith Pardoe, Pardoe  

The findings, published this month, didn’t provide the tidy resolution that hospitals and code officials were looking for.

In 12 of the 13 experimental tests, the doors did not “meet the acceptance criteria” to pass the rigorous fire test, regardless of gap size; only a double set of steel doors with a three-quarters-of-an-inch gap were able to meet the criteria to pass both tests required in NFPA 252, Standard Methods of Fire Tests of Door Assemblies. The tests generally showed that larger gaps increase airflow, which seemed to make it more difficult for doors to meet the acceptance criteria to pass, the report’s authors noted.

The report’s conclusions were further complicated by the inherent difficulties of trying to replicate real-world fire scenarios in a lab. For instance, researchers noted that the increased airflow caused by the larger door gaps made it difficult to maintain constant fire temperatures, and that the wooden fire doors they tested lacked sealing strips that now come standard on modern doors. Limits on time and resources meant that numerous other important variables that impact door performance—such as room size, door hardware and fasteners, and door age—could not all be tested. Also, the types of fire doors that were tested during the project represent only “a small sampling of the large variety of different fire doors out in the world,” Pardoe said. “Obviously, I don’t think we are anywhere close to done with this research.”

Where this leaves hospitals and the NFPA 80 committee on the issue of door gaps remains anyone’s guess. The committee was scheduled to discuss the Foundation’s findings at the end of April as part of a pre-first-draft meeting to kick off its revision cycle for the 2025 edition of the document. Pardoe said he expected committee members’ views on the issue—and what to do about it—to be mixed. He, too, seems conflicted on where to go from here.

“When it comes to hospital inspections, the door gap issue is probably the number one headache for everyone right now,” he said. “But we still don’t have any definitive data to point to, and so it’s hard to argue that we can go bigger. But I also don’t see how we can go smaller. I think we’re kind of stuck.”

JESSE ROMAN is senior editor of NFPA Journal. TOP PHOTOGRAPH: FPRF