Access Control & Identity: 6 Myths of Stairwell Reentry

Get straight on what's fact and what's fiction with regards to egress regulations and compliance

4 Myth: The stairwell reentry requirements state that stair doors must unlock automatically upon fire alarm.

Fact: There is a slight distinction between codes but the IBC states that the stair doors must be “capable of being unlocked simultaneously without unlatching upon a signal from the fire command center, if present, or a signal by emergency personnel from a single location inside the main entrance to the building,” while NFPA 101 states that “an automatic release that is actuated with the initiation of the building fire alarm system shall be provided to unlock all stair enclosure doors to allow re-entry.”

The same type of hardware described above is used in either case but the fire alarm interface will be different. Note that there are additional requirements for two-way communication in the stairwell when stair doors do not allow free access at all times.


5 Myth: Both sides of a stair door can be locked as long as the door unlocks upon fire alarm.

Fact: It’s difficult to count the number of times an architect or end user has asked to specify hardware for a door that is locked at all times except during a fire alarm. If a door is a required egress door, there are VERY limited applications that would allow this—NFPA 101 lists exceptions for certain existing occupancies, such as buildings permitted to have a single exit and certain healthcare and detention/correctional occupancies. Most stair doors must allow free egress from the non-stair side at all times and, if there is a need to limit egress, the two options would be delayed egress hardware, which delays egress for 15 seconds, or an alarm to discourage use of the door. Note that delayed egress locks are not allowed in every occupancy type and there are additional code requirements for doors equipped with delayed egress locks.


6 Myth: Stair discharge doors opening to the exterior must unlock automatically upon fire alarm to allow firefighter access to the stair.

Fact: The IBC specifically states that “stairway discharge doors shall be openable from the egress side and shall only be locked from the opposite side.”

There is no requirement in the IBC or NFPA 101/5000 for the exterior doors to automatically unlock and provide firefighter access, although it may be required by some local jurisdictions. Unlocking these doors automatically upon fire alarm would impact the building’s security and there are other ways for firefighters to gain access. If remote release of the stair discharge doors is required by a local jurisdiction, recommend that these doors be controlled by a switch at the fire command center, rather than unlocked automatically upon fire alarm.

Stairwell reentry is an important feature of life safety and the requirements are often misunderstood or stair doors improperly modified after the building is completed. Lack of compliance with the stairwell reentry requirements resulted in the death of six people in Chicago’s Cook County Administration Building (2003), which drew attention to the issue and has resulted in widespread enforcement of the current requirements. In addition to understanding the requirements surrounding stairwell reentry, it’s also important for security integrators to be aware of the limitations on the field modifications of fire doors. In most cases, field modifications in excess of a one-inch diameter hole must be formally approved by the listing agency and door or frame manufacturer.



Lori Greene is the manager-Codes & Resources, for Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, Carmel, Ind.