Means of Egress Make Every Second Count

When a fire broke out on the 22nd floor of a Cook County office building in the heart of Chicago on Oct. 17, 2003, no one could have imagined that following established procedures would result in the deaths of six workers.
Published: December 31, 2005

But this is exactly what happened when county employees descended smoke-filled stairwells to find the doors were locked and they couldn’t escape the deadly smoke.

Because of the Cook County building fire, many municipalities have passed ordinances that control how and when doors are locked inside buildings. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and International Code Council (ICC) have also adopted codes that regulate when and how internal doors are locked. The same heightened concern applies to external doors, especially those controlled by electric locking hardware.

In recent years, colleges and universities have followed suit, focusing on campus security and fire protection. As a result, administrators and police officials should understand the basic code issues related to electronic access control and the importance of maintaining ready egress in multiple-floor campus facilities and dormitories.

Consider Basic Fire Code When Using Electronic Locking Systems
Electronic access control that integrates with other data systems is a growing trend on college campuses today. Examples include lunch and bookstore debit systems, as well as library checkouts. Access control through systems integration allows the use of a single plastic card for these and other applications.The concern that fire officials have, however, is that electric locking systems can impede ready egress through critical doors when fire code is not properly applied. This includes access from one part of a building to another, including stairwell doors.

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Before using an approved access control system, it must be assured that code allows it. This requires a close look at ICC’s International Fire Code (IFC), NFPA Life Safety Code (NFPA 101) and other requirements specific to the local jurisdiction.

According to Section 1008.1.3.4 of IFC, electronic access control is allowed in assembly, business, educational, factory and industrial, high-hazard, institutional, mercantile, residential, storage, and utility and miscellaneous applications (see Occupancy Use Groups sidebar on page 41). Of course, there’s a long list of do’s and don’ts that go along with it, which we’ll get into a little later.

Integration With Electric Locks and Fire Detection Systems Required
NFPA Life-Safety Code requires that when alarms and locking hardware are added to a door to restrict improper use, they be designed and installed in such a manner that an occupant can easily exit, even if the hardware/system should fail. There are exceptions to this, such as when delay egress is used or when dealing with special needs in facilities, as in campus security applications. Delay egress allows a door to remain locked for 15 or 30 seconds after someone has made a request to exit.

Integration between electric locking hardware and a building fire alarm system is mandatory. Both ICC and NFPA fire codes call for the automatic unlocking of access control and electric locking systems when there is a fire alarm.

The same is required of sprinkler systems, whether they use the building fire alarm system or a separate control panel. Once unlocked, these doors must remain unlocked until the sprinkler and/or fire alarm system is manually reset.

Stairwell doors equipped with electric locking hardware must also be integrated in the same manner so they unlock when fire is detected. This will help ensure that the same horrible outcome in the Cook County office building does not happen to anyone else.

There are two good reasons to follow code when installing access control equipment on egress doors. First, when the installation company fails to follow code, the degree of liability for the institution can be staggering, especially when death or injury occurs. However, when code is followed to the letter, deaths and injuries are minimized and liability is ultimately shared.

The second good reason is the bad publicity that it brings to an institution and all concerned when such an event occurs and neglect and/or incompetence is proven as the cause. Either one potentially represents a fast track to ruin for everyone involved.

Code-Specific Elements for Electric Locking Systems
When contracting with outside firms for the installation of access control and other electric door locking systems, there are specific elements required by ICC and NFPA fire codes.

First, referring to IFC, a sensor is needed on the inside of the egress door that will detect someone’s approach. This sensor must be physically connected to the wiring that provides power to the locking mechanism in such a way that when detection occurs, power to the lock is disrupted, allowing the individual to freely egress.

Secondly, code requires that when operating power is lost at the door, the locking mechanism releases the door. This is to ensure that if there is a disruption in house power or if a power supply goes bad, the occupants can still exit the building.

Third, a manual release must be installed on the egress side within five feet of the door. It must be clearly labeled “Push to Exit” and mounted 40 to 48 inches from floor level to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines.

“In our jurisdiction, we allow most alarm companies to use an electronic push-bar instead of a manual release button, providing proper signage is included on the door,” says Dave Tiller, fire protection/building inspector with Summit County Department of Building Standards of Akron, Ohio.The manual egress button and push-bar, just as the egress motion sensor, must act completely independent of the access control unit. Once activated, the manual button or push-bar must maintain the unlocked condition of the door for a minimum of 30 seconds. In addition, it must do so by breaking power to the locking mechanism at the door.

Al Colombo has spent more than 30 years in various capacities of the electronic security industry. He can be reached at (330) 867-4401 or

For the complete version of this article, please refer to the January/February 2006 issue of Campus Safety Magazine.

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