Access Control Meets Life Safety

Why NFPA 101 should be important to you

Most security and safety executives are familiar with the national fire alarm and signaling code, released and updated regularly by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and better known as NFPA 72. However, there are other NFPA codes which are not as readily recognized. One of those codes, NFPA 101, which is often referred to as the “Life Safety Code,” should be required knowledge for anyone installing or overseeing an electronic access control system.

NFPA 101 is focused on the safety of individuals within a building. This means that both employees and visitors should be able to exit safely, with the easy operation of any exit door release.

There are different requirements for special environments such as nursing homes, correctional facilities, etc., but overall it is important to remember that the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) can add requirements. Because the code is updated every three years, the exact code year selected by each municipality will vary. It is therefore important to review any new access control plans with the AHJ prior to implementation.

NFPA 101 requirements are in place to facilitate a safe environment. Safety will often be at odds with security — meaning it is important to understand the codes so that a well thought-out plan is in place to provide both safety and security. Below are general issues associated with NFPA 101 and how they impact various areas and doors of a facility and the electronic access control systems.



The impacts of NFPA 101 on stairwells are numerous. Obviously for safety reasons, it is important to allow free access into and out of a stairwell on many floors of a building, including the lobby for first responders; however, some of these entrances to the stairwell on different floors may be locked for security purposes – i.e., to restrict access. To meet code in buildings of more than four stories, there must be access from the lobby into the stairwell, and access to at least two floors with not more than four floors locked in between. The top floor or next-to-the-top floor must also remain unlocked from inside the stairwell. Additionally, signage must be in the stairwells indicating which floors are unlocked and which are not. These requirements can be a major concern for a security manager that does not want access to floors from a stairwell enclosure in a building.

Lobby stairwell access can actually be a serious security concern, if access to floors above is restricted to the general public. Technology approaches include: alarming the lobby stairwell door; adding video surveillance coverage; providing the lobby receptionist with a clear view of the stairwell door; and/or to use plants, planters and other blockades to minimize undesirable access to the door.

Stairwell doors at each floor are the second major concern. If it meets the guidelines above, certain stairwell doors can be locked or secured with card readers to restrict access; however, to meet code, all doors must have a pushbar or panic release that enables stairwell entry.

The third concern is access to the roof. If the stairwell allows roof access, code dictates that it must be unlocked if it does not allow re-entry from the roof itself. From a security standpoint, the easiest way to handle roof access is to keep the roof access point locked inside the building going out, which restricts access, but enables one to enter the stairwell from the roof. As a security safeguard, an alarm on the roof door is a minimum, with motion detection and video coverage added as necessary.


Fire Doors

One area that must be understood by the security team is the difference between an emergency exit door and a fire door. In essence, either can be an emergency exit door; however, the primary difference is that the fire doors must have mechanical closures and push bar fire exit hardware that cannot be dogged open. The doors will be required to meet a fire rating based on code requirements and they cannot be modified in any way that reduces the fire rating, such as drilling large holes in it.

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