Assuring a Ready and Rapid Means of Egress

When a fire breaks out in a building, there are established evacuation procedures that the occupants must follow. These procedures are designed to save lives. Who would have guessed that following them would contribute to the deaths of six workers when a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of the 38-story Cook County building in the heart of Chicago?

That is exactly what happened on Oct. 17, 2003, when those individuals descended a smoke-filled stairwell. What they found when they reached their destination was a locked door. In fact, the doors at every level were locked as part of the building’s security program. All of them died of smoke inhalation.

Other county workers were more fortunate. According to the Associated Press, State Attorney Dick Devine and a group of co-workers were forced back by the smoke in the stairways. Devine said his group was stymied by locked doors on several floors as they worked their way through the stairwell.

Because of the Cook County fire, many municipalities have passed ordinances that control how and when doors are locked inside buildings. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Code Council (ICC) have also adopted codes that regulate when and how internal doors are locked. The same heightened concern applies to external doors, especially those controlled by electric locking hardware.

In recent years, facility security and fire protection have become the focus of business owners as well as building officials and fire safety professionals. This month, we will examine the basic code issues related to electronic access control and the job of maintaining ready egress in multiple-floor facilities.

Basic Code Considerations
Electronic access control is a growing trend today because these systems protect occupants and visitors while integrating with other data systems. Examples include on-site cafeterias and stores where a single plastic card can be used for security and financial purposes. Access control, through systems integration, allows the use of a card for these and other applications. This is a growing trend, and we will see more and more of it in the future.

Security of perimeter doors is extremely important, but the concern that fire officials have is that electric locking systems can actually impede ready and rapid egress through critical doors when a fire occurs.

Before using an approved access control system, it must be assured that code allows it. This requires a close look at ICC’s International Fire Code (IFC), NFPA Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and those codes specific to the local jurisdiction.

According to Section 1008.1.3.4 of IFC, electronic access control is allowed in Groups A, B, E, M, and R-1 or R-2 (see sidebar on page 32 of April issue). Of course, there’s a long list of dos and don’ts that go along with it, which we’ll get into a little later.

Integrating With Electric Locks
NFPA Life Safety Code requires when alarms and locking hardware are added to a door to restrict improper use that the design includes provisions whereby occupants can easily exit, even if the hardware/system should fail. There are exceptions to this, such as when delay egress is used or when dealing with special needs in facilities such as correctional institutions. Delay egress allows a door to remain locked for 15 or 30 seconds after someone has tripped the egress motion detector, pushes the manual egress button or applies pressure to an electronic push bar (see photo on page 33 of April issue).

Section 7.1.9 of NFPA 101, 2000 Edition, says, “Any device or alarm installed to restrict the improper use of a means of egress shall be designed and installed so that it cannot, even in case of failure, impede or prevent emergency use of such means of egress unless otherwise provided in and Chapters 18, 29, 22, and 23.”

Integration between electric locking hardware and a building fire alarm system is mandatory.

International Residential Code, Section 1008.1.3.4(4), 2003 Edition, states, “Activation of the building fire alarm system, if provided, shall automatically unlock the doors, and the doors shall remain unlocked until the fire alarm system has been reset.” Section of NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, 2000, says, “Activation of the building fire-protective signaling system, if provided, shall automatically unlock the doors in the direction of egress, and the doors shall remain unlocked until the fire-protective signaling system has been manually reset.”

Section 3-9.7 of NFPA 72 also provides direction in this regard. The difference between a fire-protective signaling system and a fire detection system, per NFPA 101, relates to the means of activation. In the case of the former, a manual means of activation is required, such as manual fire pulls. In the case of the latter, detection is automatic, such as an automatic sprinkler system; spot smoke detectors; duct-type smoke detectors; heat detectors; beam-type photoelectric smoke detectors; or some other means of fire or smoke sensing.

Stairwell doors equipped with electric locking hardware must also be integrated in the same manner so they unlock when a fire is detected. This will help assure that the same horrible outcome in the Cook County office building does not happen to anyone else.

Section of NFPA 101 says, “Every door in a stair enclosure serving more than four stories shall allow re-entry from the stair enclosure to the interior of the building, or an automatic release shall be provided to unlock all stair enclosure doors to allow re-entry. Such automatic release shall be actuated with the initiation of the building fire alarm system.”

Code Specifics for Electric Locks
When contracting with outside firms for the installation of access control and other electric door locking systems, there are specific elements required by ICC and NFPA fire codes.

First, referring to IFC, a sensor is needed on the inside of the egress door that will detect someone’s approach. This sensor must be physically connected to the wiring that provides power to the locking mechanism so that when detection occurs, power to the lock is physically disrupted, allowing the individual to freely egress (Section 1008.1.3.4(1) of NFPA 101, 2003).

Secondly, code requires that when operating power is lost at the door the locking mechanism release the door. This is to assure that a disruption in house power, or if a power supply goes bad, that the occupants can still exit the building (Section 1008.1.3.4(2) and Section 1008.1.3.4(3) of ICC, 2003)

Third, a manual release must be installed on the egress side within five feet of the door. It must be clearly labeled “Push to Exit” and mounted 40 to 48 inches from floor level to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The manual egress button and push-bar, just as the egress motion sensor, must act completely independent of the access control unit. Except where the sensor is obligated to unlock the door only if there is detected motion, the manual button must do so for a minimum of 30 seconds. It also must do so by breaking power to the locking mechanism.


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