Integrating Life Safety and Security Systems

Designing Effective Stairwell Re-Entry Systems in High-Rise Buildings


Due to recent fire events, building owners and property managers across the country are re-examining the life safety and security systems installed in their high-rise buildings. Major cities as well are starting to focus on the need to ensure occupant safety and security during life-threatening emergencies. The City of Chicago has taken center stage in this area in response to high-rise fire emergency tragedies at the Cook County Building and 135 South LaSalle in downtown Chicago.

In the Cook County Building fire, several people lost their lives when locked stairwells stopped them from escaping the building. The City of Chicago took immediate action to develop and pass an ordinance requiring building owners to ensure that all stairwells are unlocked to allow floor re-entry during emergency situations. Without the ordinance, high-rise building ownership would not typically budget money to install stairwell re-entry systems that immediately unlock stairwell doors upon activation of the fire alarm panel.

Stairwell re-entry systems can be expensive to install and may require complete modification of stairwell doors as well as modifications to the building fire alarm panel. Owners now must balance the need and desire for secure individual floors with the need to ensure the safety of all occupants during emergency situations. Though the new Chicago ordinance requires specific actions to be taken by ownership, it provides owners with options to lessen the overall expenses to both the building occupants and the ownership.

Ordinance and Regulatory Mandates
Chicago approved Municipal Code Chapter 13-196-084 in December 2003, which requires ownership to take specific actions to ensure stairwell re-entry. Chapter 13-196-084 provides the following re-entry options to building owners:

Option 1. The stairwell enclosure doors shall not be locked from the stairwell side at any time, in order to provide re- entry from the stair enclosure to the interior of the building; or

Option 2. The stairwell enclosure doors shall be equipped with a fail-safe electronic lock release system that is activated both manually, by a single switch accessible to building management and firefighting personnel, and automatically, either by approved smoke detectors or sprinkler water flow devices, connected to an annunciator panel. If this option is selected, a telephone or other two-way communications system connected to an approved station shall be provided at not less than every fifth floor in each stairwell.

The National Fire Protection Association has also developed specific requirements related to stairwell re-entry. The following requirements are from NFPA 101 Section 5-2:

5-2.1.5.2. Every stair enclosure door 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.

5-2.1.5.3. A latch or other fastening device on a door shall be provided with a lever, knob, handle, panic bar, or other simple type of releasing device having an obvious method of operation under all lighting conditions. The releasing mechanism for any latch shall be located not more than 48 inches above the finished floor. Doors shall be open-able with no more than one releasing operation.

In each of these examples, ownership is provided with specific instructions for compliance. Owners in Chicago have two compliance options: (1) keep the doors unlocked at all times or (2) design an electrified lock release system that is directly connected to the building fire alarm panel and unlocked when the fire alarm panel is activated. Both options are available to owners, but the determining factor is the level of security required at the building.

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