Fire & Life Safety: Back to Basics on Fire Exits

Dec. 12, 2014
A guide to understanding codes, terms, exceptions and more

Many electronic security professionals are confused about code requirements regarding the interconnection of their systems with doors used as fire exits — specifically, how they are to be properly locked and unlocked by the fire alarm system. However, a basic understanding of this important topic must precede any discussion of connecting the fire alarm system (IBC and IFC both have the fire alarm connection rules located in Chapter 10, “Means of Egress,” Section 1008).

Part of the reason for confusion is that the ICC Building/Fire Codes misuse the terms “locked” and “unlocked.” Surprisingly, the term “locked” doesn’t even appear in the ICC Building/Fire Codes definition chapters, or egress chapters, or anywhere else, for that matter. It may help if you think of the word “locked” as used by the codes and standards, to mean “preventing free egress” since that is what they actually mean by “locking” a door — preventing it from being used to exit the building during an emergency.

Two Exceptions to the Rules

It is against both codes to physically lock doors to prevent an occupant’s exit from a building, room or space; however, there are two exceptions. The first, although rare, restricts use of an exit by certain occupants of mental, penal or correctional facilities. Even then, this locking is allowed only if supervised personnel are continuously on duty and the employer has a fire official-approved emergency plan to evacuate these occupants during a fire. This locking option requires designated and trained staff to respond to the activation of a fire alarm by proceeding directly to any of these locked doors, and if necessary, using a key, card or keypad code, to release the locked exit(s) in the area of the fire. These ICC exit locking rules are distinguished from other building/fire code locking rules under “Special locking Arrangements in Group I-2” and “Locking Arrangements in Correctional Facilities.”

The second exception, and most common way of legally preventing free egress from a building, occurs when a building is closed up and the owner turns a key to bolt the door from the outside when they leave to go home for the evening. This too will prevent panic hardware from operating; however, this is preferred for security reasons since some emergency hardware has made it easy for burglars to merely slip in a bent coat hanger wire to pull the manual exit bar to gain entry.

When a building is not in use, the owner is allowed to secure doors from both the inside and outside. Schools often chain doors when closed up at night. In large cities it is common for rolling shutters and padlocked gates to be used by businesses where the owner is concerned with burglaries or looting. A Knox-box outside the building could then be provided to allow for a fast, non-destructive entry to the building.

These are the only two circumstances that allow exits to be physically locked to prevent free egress from a building, room or space for security reasons. If your application does not fall into one of the two above categories, then all exit access doors must operate without restrictions from the egress/exit side of the door.

Emergency Egress 101

You are always permitted to “lock” doors leading into a room, or space. Trying to get into a room or space is not what happens when occupants are fleeing a burning building — they want to get out, not in. Following that logic, for security reasons, entrance into buildings/rooms/spaces can be limited by the use of locks as long as the room/space is not part of the designated exit plan approved by the code officials.

Electronic access control systems may be used to allow authorized persons to enter a locked door or leave an area without using the emergency exit hardware. Electronic access control systems merely provide an authorized entrance to a room or space, and may also record their leaving the room. However, the required panic bar on the interior side of the exit access doorway will always provide a fail-safe means to override any electric latch or access control system. Meaning, those persons without the authority to enter certain areas, will still have the power to leave any area regardless of the access control system.

Employees are taught that opening the exit door from the inside by using the emergency panic hardware, without first using a code, card or key, will cause an alarm to sound locally and possibly at a secure location for action to be taken by security personnel. Use of an access control system will allow authorized personnel to come and go; and the panic hardware will be available only for emergencies, by anyone.

OSHA protects employees and sets basic rules that the building and fire codes must adhere to. OSHA states that “Employees must be able to open an exit route door from the inside at all times without keys, tools or special knowledge. A device such as a panic bar that locks only from the outside is permitted on exit discharge doors. Exit route doors must be free of any device or alarm that could restrict emergency use of the exit route if the device or alarm fails.”

The Terms Defined

As an electronic security/life safety system professional, you must become familiar with the terms used in the codes and standards. Do not assume you know what even the simplest term like “exit” means, without first reading and understanding the code, and its use in context. Otherwise, you may be surprised, confused, or someday sued or embarrassed due to your lack of knowledge.

Here are a few key definitions, using the codes as a guide:

Exit: The portion of an egress system between the exit access and the exit discharge or public way. Exit components include exterior exit doors at the level of exit discharge, interior exit stairways, interior exit ramps, exit passageways, exterior exit stairways, exterior exit ramps and horizontal exits.

Exit Access: The portion of an egress system that leads from any occupied portion of a building or structure to an exit. An example would be a door from a guest room to the hotel’s hallway.

Exit Access Doorway: A door or access point along the path of egress travel from an occupied room, area or space where the path of egress enters an intervening room, corridor, exit access stair or exit access ramp. Examples include smoke doors dividing a corridor and the door to the exit stairway located at each end of a common hall.

Exit Discharge: The portion of an egress system between the termination of an exit and a public way. Each exit discharge must lead directly outside or to a street, walkway, refuge area, public way or open space with access to the outside.

Exit Passageway: An exit component that is separated from other interior spaces of a building or structure by fire resistance-rated construction and opening protectives. Exit passageways also provide for a protected path of egress travel in a horizontal direction to an exit or to the exit discharge. For example, the interior corridors in apartment buildings and interior hallways serving hotel guest rooms.

Horizontal Exit: A path of egress travel from one building to an area in another building on approximately the same level, or a path of egress travel through or around a wall or partition to an area on approximately the same level in the same building, which affords safety from fire and smoke from the area of incidence and areas communicating therewith. These are common in hospitals and other institutions where relocation is preferred over evacuation.

Remember, Santa only has to figure out how to get in; no one should ever have to figure out how to get out. Happy Holidays.

Greg Kessinger is SD&I’s fire alarm and codes expert and a regular contributor. Please email him your fire & life safety questions [email protected].