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Don't lock in fire code violations: how to ensure that security devices don't create life-safety problems, especially with regard to egress points.

The increased focus on security over the past several years has sparked heated debate between security and fire-safety professionals. These conflicts occur because while security must prevent intruders from entering a facility, fire-safety professionals must ensure that occupants can exit quickly in an emergency. Security measures such as badging out and securing stairwells may raise fire-safety code concerns. But security professionals can take steps to minimize the potentially negative impact that some life-safety requirements might have on their security plans. Let's look at how security and safety goals can be reconciled with regard to egress points, stairwells, and alarm response.


Egress points. Access control is the primary area of conflict between security and life-safety professionals. While locking outside doors to prevent people from entering a building is permissible under all of the published fire-code requirements, inhibiting free egress is not. The National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) Life Safety Code 101 says that in general every person within the building must be able to exit all doors in their path to the outside without "the use of a key, a tool, or special knowledge or effort for operation from the egress side" (NFPA 101,

Most of the criteria addressing permissible access-control measures stipulate that door locks (from the egress side) have to be released upon events such as activation of the building fire-alarm or fire-sprinkler systems. Usually, the lock must remain open until the fire-protection system is reset.

The code recognizes, however, that smoke detectors are the usual source of false fire alarms. Understanding the weaknesses in these detectors, the code stipulates that an evacuation alarm can be programmed to sound only after more than one smoke detector, or a combination of a smoke detector and a manual pull station, sprinkler, or heat detector, is activated. Other systems, such as sprinklers and heat detectors, are much more reliable, and the code requires an evacuation alarm when only one of these alarms is activated.

Panic hardware. Where a company wants to have a badging-out system for tracking and other purposes, it will need a way to address fire-code demands for free egress in emergencies. Providing conventional panic hardware along with the access control equipment is a sufficient compromise between the code and the access control objective for some security applications.

Panic hardware allows occupants to push the door open without using a badge, but that action causes an alarm. The alarm could, for example, be linked to a CCTV camera that enables security staff to analyze the situation and document it for further review or disciplinary action.

There are two types of panic hardware: mechanical and electric. The appropriate choice varies by application. It is important, however, that all panic hardware is Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rated for use in a fire.

Delayed opening. In some circumstances, a company may want a way to have personnel respond to the scene before the door opens. This approach is critical for businesses, such as large retailers, that might be victimized by thieves running out of unmonitored exits with merchandise.

The fire code does allow for this type of arrangement, which basically is a panic-hardware setup with not only an alarm but also some delay before the door unlocks. But the code limits the time of the delay.

A 15-second delay is permitted without special permission from the compliance officials; however, a 30-second maximum delay time can be granted to facilities on a case-by-case basis by local fire officials.

The code (NFPA 101, also requires that a specific sign be clearly posted on the door, making the occupant aware of the delay.

Stairwells. In most jurisdictions, doors to stairways in buildings, of five stories or more, are required to remain unlocked during a fire to allow reentry from the stairwell if passage to the ground level is obstructed by fire, smoke, or debris. Unlocked stairway doors also allow firefighters access to the fire. Security professionals, however, often need to prevent occupants from using emergency stairs for uncontrolled travel between different floors on a daily basis.

An NFPA code allows stair doors to be locked from the stairway side if the locks will release upon fire-alarm activation (NFPA 101, [2]). Thus, as with an external door, a card reader can be installed on the stairwell side of the door as long as it will be overridden when a fire alarm sounds.

This solution doesn't eliminate the potential for evacuees to gain access to secured floors during false-alarm evacuations. Security professionals should take this fact into consideration when designing the system and should install equipment, such as CCTV cameras and alarms, in all sensitive areas.

Another option is to have a hallway or lobby area on each floor, such that stairwell doors do not open into any office space, but only onto the lobby or corridor. This is possible when two stair towers are both accessible from this one vestibule. The subsequent entry into the inner office space would be controlled by a card reader. In this scenario, the stairwell remains accessible, allowing the evacuee to escape one stairwell and enter another stairwell, but the evacuee is not permitted access to secured offices or other unauthorized areas.

Alarm response. False alarms can be costly for businesses as well as annoying for guests, tenants, and workers. They can also lead guards to become complacent. In some cases where security has the power to silence the fire alarm, officers who have endured multiple false alarms may be tempted to ignore the next alarm without checking it out. That could, of course, be a deadly mistake.

Positive alarm sequence. To prevent false alarms from being sounded to the occupants, the code allows for some buildings to be configured with a "presignal" feature (NFPA 72,, which allows for the initial fire alarm signal to go first to a location monitored around the clock by trained personnel. Once the signal is received, the personnel must then manually initiate the general building evacuation signal.

As in all cases where human intervention overrides an automatic fire alarm, procedures must be in place to prevent failures to signal an evacuation in an actual emergency. These procedures are designed to avoid the dangers of complacency discussed earlier.

One code-permissible configuration is called a "positive alarm sequence" (NFPA 72,, a sort of pre-signal system combined with a "dead-man's switch." In this arrangement, the initial alarm signals only to trained personnel, who must manually acknowledge the signal within 15 seconds of activation. Failure to acknowledge the signal causes an automatic building evacuation.

Acknowledging the signal within the allotted 15 seconds then starts a three-minute "investigation" phase, which allows the source of the alarm to be confirmed by a guard, for example. If no problems are found, the general evacuation signal can be aborted within the three minutes. A failure to abort the signal causes an automatic building evacuation alarm.

The author used this type of sequencing at a client's property. The more-than-300-room destination resort hotel was plagued by false alarms. The resort's policy was to comp rooms for all false evacuations that occurred during sleeping hours. At an average of several hundred dollars per room per night, the cost of false alarms began to affect the hotel's bottom line.

Although the hotel took steps to increase the reliability of the fire-alarm system, including the revamping of detectors and sprinkler systems, the results remained unacceptable.

To combat the problem, the author devised and recommended a modified positive-alarm-sequence concept. Under this plan, if an alarm is triggered, workers at the front desk are notified.

The front-desk workers have 15 seconds to acknowledge the alarm by simultaneously using their two different access control cards at two readers located at least ten feet apart. The readers and the cards are part of the access control system, creating a log of the individual workers who acknowledge the alarm. The access control system is integrated into the fire-alarm system.

If the alarm is acknowledged during the 15-second window, the evacuation alarm is delayed for three minutes, allowing security to investigate the building for signs of fire. If, however, the alarm is not acknowledged by the front-desk workers during this time, the evacuation alarm sounds, eliminating the investigation phase altogether.

During the investigation phase, a security officer investigates the area that triggered the initial alarm. The officer can abort the evacuation with his or her access card at predetermined abort stations, located in the vicinity of the smoke detectors and on opposite ends of the corridors. The abort stations were installed after consulting with local fire officials.

Aborting the alarm requires the officer to hold his or her card to a reader at one end of the hallway, then walk to the other end of the hallway and again hold the card up to the reader. Requiring the same badge to be used at both ends of a corridor helps ensure that someone traverses the entire hallway to see whether any evidence of smoke or fire exists.

If the alarm is not aborted in the allotted time, the evacuation signal sounds. As with the employees at the front desk, because the employee investigating the incident uses his or her personal badge to abort the alarm, a record is created in the access control system.

The investigating officer must complete the investigation within the three minutes. If the officer does not abort the alarm within the allotted time, the evacuation alarm will sound.

Additionally, as required under the code for a positive-alarm-sequence system, the evacuation alarm could be accelerated instantly by any second alarm signal or by the activation of any manual fire-alarm pull station. If the investigating employee discovers an actual fire, the evacuation signal can easily be initiated this way without waiting for the three minutes to expire.

This system, which the author dubbed an "Enhanced Positive-Alarm Sequence" (EPAS) configuration, was designed to help ensure that trained personnel would physically respond to the general area of the source signal, rather than simply aborting the evacuation from the front desk on the assumption that it was just another in the history of false alarms.

The response element, along with the "two-man rule" and the records generated by the access control system, were benefits intended to help thwart potential liability lawsuits. It also helped to reduce the amount of unnecessary evacuations during sleeping hours, eliminating the need for the hotel to comp guest rooms.

Addressing both life-safety and security is a difficult but essential task that requires knowledge of codes and their implications for the overall security plan. With the proper planning, security professionals can find creative ways to work with the fire codes and fire officials to create a win-win situation that ensures safety and security for all occupants.

RELATED ARTICLE: What's the Source of Fire Codes?

The word "code" has become synonymous with any published requirement pertaining to buildings. The following is an overview of the hierarchy of fire codes.

Model-code creators. While the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) may be the most well-known code-making body, it is certainly not the only one. In recent years, the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO), the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA), and the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI), three of the four major code groups, merged to form the International Code Council (ICC).

Whatever the source of the model language, it does not have the force of law. One reason for the moniker "model code" is that these publications only become legal mandates when they have been adopted into law by some level of government.

Statutory law. In the case of federal property, the U.S. government dictates building fire and safety requirements. For nonfederal property, authority rests with the state and local governments. Most state statutes simply describe general standards and defer the details to one or more state agencies.

Regulations. These are requirements published by state agencies--such as the state fire marshal's office--as a result of either a directive or specific authority set forth in a statutory law. Provided that these requirements are produced within the parameters of state law, they have the same force and effect as if they were produced by the legislature. The term "administrative" law applies to both these types of rules and the judicial decisions handed down when they are challenged in court.

Local ordinances. It is fairly common for states to establish "minimum" requirements and empower local cities and counties to enact more stringent requirements, if they so choose. Most laws require that local ordinances be produced through a process that includes a vote by elected officials. Like the states, these governing bodies will sometimes empower local government agencies--such as the fire and building departments--to hash out the specific details of the codes.

Standards. The nationally recognized codes and standards published by the code-making bodies, such as the NFPA, only take effect when adopted as laws or regulations by governmental authorities, whether federal, state, or local. States or local governments typically make some modifications to model codes, to accommodate local conditions and reflect the specific needs of the jurisdiction, before codifying them into laws and regulations. Thus, security professionals must always look to the local laws and rules, rather than the model code, for guidance.

Codes undergo a cycle of revision by their publishing bodies, usually every three years. Each code body publishes numerous codes (such as building, fire, electrical, and plumbing) and these are usually revised on different schedules as opposed to all at once. In nearly every case, the state law that a legislature passes when it wants to adopt a model code will specify the edition of that code that is being put into effect. Since the wheels of government often turn slowly, the edition in effect being put into a specific jurisdiction may be several years behind the most current one published by the code groups.

By Michael Minieri, CPP

Michael Minieri, CPP, is a senior associate for Kroll International and is a recognized expert on both security and fire-protection issues. He is a member of ASIS.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:LIFE SAFETY
Author:Minieri, Michael
Publication:Security Management
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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