When you consider all of the hardware and software elements that constitute an access control system, perhaps the least technical is the door hardware. Yet the application of that hardware is the least understood and subject to more headaches than any other component. Why should that be? And what are the factors that need to be overcome to allow innovation and advancement?
At the heart of this dichotomy is struggle between two different disciplines and the standards that control them. The security discipline has a need to control access and egress at portals, and life safety requirements dictate that all persons - including those intent on criminal activity - can readily escape an area in an emergency or life-threatening situation. And, because the life safety is the more important, it is subject to more standards and codes than security. In most areas of conflict between the two (except, perhaps, in the military), security is the one that is required to compromise.
The Impact of Codes and Standards
Thus, the application and operation of door locking hardware, which ultimately controls access and egress at portals leading to and from spaces that store assets, are subject to strict codes and standards while other systems components - such as access control software and intrusion alarm sensors - are not so burdened. Indeed, in most major U.S. cities, the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) over building codes insist that the division between life safety and security systems be complete. For example, most AHJs require that the release of an electrified door lock in an emergency situation must be performed by approved (rigidly and independently tested) fire alarm system components.
It is the rigid and independent testing of devices to meet life safety codes that separates fire alarm and security systems. However, the great benefits of requiring devices and systems to conform to strict codes creates an Achilles' Heel, and this is the underlying reason why most access control components and systems do not submit to such standards. Design changes - be they a better line of software code or a new design for a fixing screw - require costly and time-consuming re-testing and re-certification. Thus, product development is somewhat stifled by the additional costs and delays associated with standards compliance.
For door hardware that is subject to life safety, code simplicity is king: mechanical systems are considered less complex, and therefore more reliable than electrical systems. Indeed, some AHJs will not approve the installation of electromagnetic locks to control doors that are in the required path of life safety egress and delayed egress systems. With all of their fail-safe components, the locks are still treated with suspicion.
In such an environment, it is not surprising that there is much less innovation in locking hardware than in the other, less-rigidly codified elements of security systems. However, necessity being the mother of invention, new door hardware products are always being developed and innovative designs that provide needed functionality, improved reliability and reduced hardware or installation cost reach the market every year.
Some of these innovations are immediate successes, some take a little longer in this very conservative marketplace; and some are bright ideas, but they flicker and fail in the harsh environment in which they must operate. Do not forget that door hardware is abused, mistreated and tested like no other: the shoulder against the door whose handle has not completely disengaged the latch, the mail cart that is rammed into the exit device ("crash" or "panic" bar) to unlatch and open the door that the mail delivery person cannot reach, and let's not forget the piece of two-by-four that is jammed into the hinge side to prop the door open. And those are examples of "legitimate" access! The door and its hardware also has to withstand the attempts at unauthorized intrusion by picking, jimmying, spreading, bumping and plain brute force.