Access Control & Identity: 6 Myths of Stairwell Reentry

Feb. 11, 2013
Get straight on what's fact and what's fiction with regards to egress regulations and compliance

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 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. 

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. Please 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 health care 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.