I’ve received this question many times over the years…

Can a break-glass switch be used to unlock a door in the means of egress?

The short answer – probably not.

According to the International Building Code (IBC), “egress doors shall be readily openable from the egress side without the use of a key or special knowledge or effort.”  NFPA 101 – The Life Safety Code includes very similar language.  Although there are some exceptions to that requirement, most required egress doors and doors intended for egress must comply.  Breaking the glass in order to activate a switch to unlock the door for egress would be considered special knowledge and effort.

When an egress door is equipped with an electromagnetic lock, the IBC and NFPA 101 include sections that address two different releasing methods.  One is where the lock is released by a switch in door-mounted hardware, and by power failure; this application does not require an auxiliary push-button or fire-alarm release.  The other method is where the lock is released by a motion sensor which detects a building occupant approaching the door.  In addition to the sensor, this application also requires the lock to be unlocked by power failure, fire alarm activation, and by an auxiliary push button.  The IBC requirements for the push button state that “ready access” to the button must be provided; a button behind a glass panel would not comply.  Here is the applicable paragraph from the IBC:

The doors shall be arranged to unlock from a manual unlocking device located 40 inches to 48 inches (1016 mm to 1219 mm) vertically above the floor and within 5 feet (1524 mm) of the secured doors. Ready access shall be provided to the manual unlocking device and the device shall be clearly identified by a sign that reads “PUSH TO EXIT.” When operated, the manual unlocking device shall result in direct interruption of power to the lock—independent of other electronics—and the doors shall remain unlocked for not less than 30 seconds.

NFPA 101 includes a similar section regarding the auxiliary push button, and states that “the manual release device shall be readily accessible.”  It’s possible that a code official could approve a modification to these codes for a specific location, but that is not a common occurrence.

Can you think of any locations where a break-glass switch would be allowed to unlock an egress door in the direction of egress? 

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Thank you to Mark Trittipo of Advant Solutions for the photos!

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