Building owners often direct security integrators to lock the stairwell doors on the stair side to prevent unauthorized entry into tenant spaces. The term “stairwell reentry” refers to the code requirements which allow a building occupant to leave a stairwell during a fire emergency and find another exit. If stairwell doors do not allow for reentry and a stairwell becomes impassible, it can jeopardize the lives of those using the stairwell as a means of egress. It’s important for security integrators to fully understand the stairwell reentry requirements and be prepared to advise your customer on code-compliant solutions. There are quite a few myths surrounding these requirements:
1 Myth: Only high-rise buildings are required to comply with stairwell reentry requirements.
Fact: There have been many changes to this section of the code in the last ten years, which is why there is so much confusion surrounding it. The 2000 edition of the International Building Code (IBC) and the model building codes that existed prior contained reentry requirements for high-rise buildings but required passage sets for stair doors in buildings that did not meet the definition of a high rise. The 2003 edition of the IBC added an exception which allowed mechanical locks on stair doors if the stair served four stories or less. In the 2006 edition of the IBC, that exception was changed to require remote unlocking from the fire command center or a location inside the building’s main entrance, effectively removing the exception for mechanical locks.
This language remains unchanged in the 2009 and 2012 editions of the IBC. Although NFPA 101 The Life Safety Code and NFPA 5000 The Building Construction and Safety Code DO allow mechanical locks on stair doors serving four stories or less, this only applies to buildings where one of these codes is being enforced. The IBC is currently the predominant building code for most jurisdictions and the majority of buildings must be built in accordance with the IBC.
2 Myth: The door to every fifth floor must be unlocked, but the doors to the rest of the floors can be locked.
Fact: The requirement for every fifth floor to be unlocked is part of the “selected reentry” conditions in NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000. This section requires at least two doors in a stair to be unlocked, no more than four locked floors between unlocked floors, either the top or next to top level must be unlocked and must allow access to another exit. The doors allowing reentry must be marked as such and doors not allowing reentry must have signage which indicates the closest unlocked door in each direction. Again, this only applies to buildings where one of these codes is being enforced—the IBC does not include the selected reentry option. I have only seen selected reentry used on one project that I have specified and in my opinion the codes were being creatively applied in that case as the IBC was the prevailing code.
3 Myth: A fail safe electric strike can be used on a stair door to provide reentry.
Fact: Stair doors are fire-rated assemblies and electric strikes used on fire doors must be fail secure to maintain positive latching. Stair doors providing reentry must be equipped with a fail safe product and, since fail safe electric strikes can’t be used on fire doors, a fail safe lock or fail safe exit device trim is typically used.
A fail safe electric strike will not maintain the positive latching required for fire-rated doors and the pressure from a fire could push the door open, allowing smoke and flames to enter the stairwell. Fail safe locks and trim unlock the lever handle upon fire alarm/power failure but do not unlatch the door. The IBC specifically states that stair doors must unlock “without unlatching.” In addition to fail-safe locks and trim, there is another category of products than can be used for stairwell reentry—a frame-mounted actuator that controls the locking/unlocking via a lock modification.