Access Control Meets Life Safety

Why NFPA 101 should be important to you

Code says that all fire door hardware must also be approved for the same fire rating, which often means the fire door is ordered as a complete fire door assembly including the fire exit hardware.

Emergency Door Releases and Closing Mechanisms

Delayed Egress: According to the code, opening an emergency exit door must be accomplished with a single releasing operation that is obvious to any user and may not exceed 15 pounds of effort or more than three seconds to release the latch. The release device must be mounted 34 to 48 inches above the floor.

To minimize security issues, a delayed egress “controlled panic egress” device on exterior doors that use panic-type door release mechanisms is often deployed. This allows a delay before the door latch release and provides an audible alarm. For example, an emergency exit door on the side of a building or pedestrian dock door often incorporates a delayed egress device. With delayed exit, the maximum delay time is 15 seconds (the AHJ can approve up to 30 seconds).

In buildings protected throughout by an approved automatic fire sprinkler system that is supervised, the door must unlock upon activation of the sprinkler system (water flow), any heat detector or up to two smoke detectors. NFPA 101 limits this automatic unlocking to areas of low occupancy and ordinary hazard contents. Usually, delayed exit devices require pre-approved door hardware from one of several different manufacturers. The hardware generally builds in the functionality to comply with NFPA 101. The only additional requirement from a security standpoint is to have the door alarmed, as an audible alarm will discourage abuse of the emergency exit.

NFPA 101 also requires signage that indicates the alarm will sound and the door will release in the AHJ-approved number of seconds. From a security perspective, additional wording should be added that tell the user that an alarm is being sent to the security department.

Self-Closing Devices: Another type of door hardware is a self-closing device, which is required on fire door assemblies. Typically, when a sprinkler system water flow or smoke detector activates, these doors — usually located in the middle of a hallway — automatically close. They are held open by an electrically-powered “hold open” device, where the electrical power is automatically shut off and activate mechanical closure when there is a water flow or smoke detection alarm. The primary impact on the electronic access control system is that these doors cannot be used as part of the overall building access control.


Electronically-Controlled Egress

NFPA 101 expects all electronically controlled access doors to be fail-safe to assure egress. In other words, when power fails or the possibility of a fire is detected, these doors will allow free egress, which by definition can allow free access.

This loss of a secure perimeter door can be an acceptable level of security in fire emergency situations only. If higher security is needed, such as in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) areas, special hardware can be installed that enables panic door hardware release when the alarm system is off, but does not allow free entry.

If a magnetic lock is used in the access control system, electrical power must be removed from the magnetic lock when fire is detected. This applies to all security-controlled doors that are part of a fire egress route. In small, normally unoccupied areas such as equipment rooms, a motion detector or pushbutton adjacent to the door can be used as a means of releasing the exit door’s electromagnetic lock. This approach should be approved in advance with the AHJ, because even though it complies with the letter of the code, the AHJ still may not approve it.


Robert Pearson has written numerous articles and has recently published a book titled, “Electronic Security Systems.” On a day-to-day basis he oversees design, project management, and maintenance of security systems for multiple sites.