This post will be published in the September 2017 issue of Doors & Hardware
Without proper planning, parking garages can present security and life-safety challenges. People who are authorized to use the parking area – or unauthorized people who are able to enter an open parking garage – may attempt to gain access to other floors of the building.
Stair towers often extend from the lowest level of the parking garage to the highest level of the building. These stairwells are typically a required means of egress for the parking garage, but allowing free access to the stairwell could cause a security problem on upper floors that are not used for parking.
Limiting Access and Egress
When trying to mitigate the security concerns, it may be tempting to prevent access to the stairs and force the use of elevators that control access to upper levels. However, if the stairwell is a required means of egress for the parking garage, occupants cannot be prevented from using the stairs for egress, although there are a couple of code-compliant security methods that might deter the use of the stairs. Locking the door with electrified hardware and ONLY unlocking it when the fire alarm is actuated IS NOT one of the acceptable methods.
The International Building Code (IBC) requires parking garages to meet the means of egress requirements of Chapter 10, where people other than parking attendants are permitted (if only parking attendants are permitted, there must be at least two exit stairways). Egress elements are based on a design occupant load of 1 person per 200 square feet (gross), so the calculated occupant load is fairly low. If you have ever witnessed a car fire you might think that parking garages present a fairly high risk of fire, but because the amount of combustibles per square foot is relatively low, the IBC classifies a parking garage as a Group S-2 – low-hazard storage occupancy.
As with most egress doors, it’s acceptable to install alarms and/or monitor switches on the parking garage exits. The switches can notify security personnel in the building or elsewhere that the door has been used. Cameras can monitor who has used the stairwell and what route they took after entering the stairwell. This option is code-compliant because it does not limit egress.
Delayed egress locks are another option, depending on whether all of the required code criteria are met – including a fire protection system. The International Building Code (IBC) does not limit the use of delayed egress locks on parking garages or other types of storage occupancies. Delayed egress locks will delay egress for 15 seconds, and must sound a local alarm. These would act as deterrents, along with the signage required by the model codes. If some building occupants are authorized to use the parking garage stairwells, an access control reader can be used to shunt the delayed egress locks or the alarms to allow the use of the door.
Although panic hardware is often used on parking garages for convenience and the ability to withstand abuse, panic hardware is not typically required by the model codes for doors that serve parking areas. Panic hardware or fire exit hardware is required by the model codes for doors serving certain occupant loads in assembly and educational occupancies, as well as high hazard occupancies, but as I mentioned previously, parking garages are considered storage occupancies.
Doors in parking garages are typically required to meet the accessibility standards, so hardware must be operable with no tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist, and no key, tool, special knowledge or effort. One releasing operation must unlatch the door, and the releasing mechanism must be mounted between 34 inches and 48 inches above the floor. The hardware used on doors in parking garages may be exposed to atypical levels of humidity and other environmental changes, so this may affect product selection.
When a door in a parking garage is required to be a fire door assembly, the door must comply with the positive-latching requirements as well as all of the other criteria for a fire door. It is not uncommon for fire doors in parking garages to be propped open with wood wedges or more creative hold-opens, but it’s important for these doors to be closed and latched in order to protect the means of egress. The annual fire door assembly inspections required by NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code, the International Fire Code (IFC), and NFPA 80 – Standard for Fire Doors and Other Opening Protectives, will help to ensure that fire doors in parking garages will perform properly if there is a fire.
When a parking-garage occupant enters a stairwell that leads to floors which need to be secured against unauthorized entry, those floors should be locked to prevent access from the stairwell. Fail-safe electrified locks are typically used to lock these doors on the stairwell side, in order to meet the stairwell reentry requirements. Although NFPA 101 allows mechanical locks in some circumstances, the IBC requires all stair doors to have the capability of being remotely unlocked by a switch at the fire command center or other approved location.
Using fail-safe electrified locks to lock stair doors on the stairwell side will help to ensure that if a fire does occur, building occupants can leave the stairwell on any level to find another exit or wait for assistance. Balancing security needs with code-compliant egress, operable hardware that meets the accessibility standards, and functional fire door assemblies will result in the required level of life safety for parking garage occupants while meeting the security needs of the facility.