Missing ceiling tiles more important than you think

  • Published
  • By 78th Civil Engineer Group Fire Protection Services
  • 78th Air Base Wing
Missing a few ceiling tiles in your office? So, what's the big deal?

Well, properly installed ceiling systems allow smoke detectors, heat detectors and fire sprinklers to operate correctly in the event of a fire. 

They also provide a barrier to the spread of smoke and fire. Breaking, displacing or removing ceiling tiles enables hot gases and smoke to rise and accumulate above detectors and sprinklers. 

Doing so delays their activation, enabling fires to rapidly grow larger before an alarm and response occur.

Ceiling tile breakage, displacement or removal often occurs as a result of mechanical system repair or maintenance. 

Because fires are unpredictable, intact tiles must be returned to their intended positions as soon as possible following such repairs. 

Office occupants often move or remove ceiling tiles, typically to improve personal comfort by altering air currents. 

The danger that it creates impacts not only the person who moves the tile, but also endangers all the people in the building. Older ceiling tiles sometimes have years of accumulated dust, dirt and insulation lying on them.  

Disturbing them could cause individuals with sensitivities or allergies who work in the immediate area, to experience health related issues.

The smoke and hot gases from a fire decrease in concentration as height and horizontal distance from the center of the fire increase. Once the smoke and hot gases reach the ceiling, they travel horizontally, creating a ceiling jet. A ceiling jet is what typically triggers smoke alarms, heat detectors and sprinkler systems.

Removing ceiling tiles can enable smoke and hot gases to rise above the remaining ceiling system, circumventing the fire protection systems located at or slightly below the level of the ceiling. 

If a fire starts in a room with a missing ceiling tile, the ceiling jet can travel to the hole created by the missing tile, and will rise into the space above the drop ceiling, which typically lacks monitoring devices. 

That may delay smoke detectors from receiving the smoke concentration needed to actuate them and to send an alarm signal. 

Most of the heat may also rise into the space above the ceiling, bypassing heat detectors and sprinklers completely. 

This renders them ineffective until the smoke and heat fill the space above, greatly lengthening the time it takes for them to work. 

Because fires can double in size each minute, the delay enables a fire to grow much larger and become more difficult to extinguish.

Missing ceiling tiles are not just a risk to those in the area where the tiles were removed. 

Spaces above drop ceiling systems often provide routes for air to be drawn back to HVAC system ductwork and fans that recirculate the air. 

Because of that feature, smoke which enters the space is often spread to other areas in the building, exposing other occupants to smoke and toxic gases.

Minimizing the number of unnecessary ceiling openings will make a building safer for all occupants. 

Always remember to prevent fires before they start. Good housekeeping and cleanliness are essential factors in preventing work place and home fires.

Employees should report any unnecessary ceiling openings to their facility manager. For more information, call the Fire Prevention Office at extension DSN 468-2145 or 478-926-2145.