I have no idea how I originally missed this video from NFPA’s Learn Something New series. It talks about one of my very favorite topics – free egress. I have been asked so many times – hundreds – whether it’s ok to lock a door in the direction of egress, and unlock it via fire alarm activation or some sort of human intervention, like having a security guard “buzz you out.” The answer is almost always “NO!”
I was working with a locksmith recently, and he was very surprised to hear that in most applications, having a button on the wall to unlock a door is not code-compliant. Yes (I can hear you protesting) – there is an application, where a lock – usually an electromagnetic lock – is required to have a button on the wall to release it. BUT, that button is just a back-up release method for the sensor that detects a building occupant approaching and automatically unlocks the door. The button can’t be the only release method, because it is not intuitive for people to operate a door that way for egress (proven during a mass shooting).
Most doors must allow egress without special knowledge or effort – operating the door normally has to allow people to exit. While there are some exceptions to this, commonly called “special locking arrangements”, the model codes addressing these applications include measures to ensure optimal life safety. One example is a controlled egress lock in a health care facility, which is only allowed where patients require containment for their safety or security.
When new legislation or policies attempt to override the code requirements in order to increase security, I always point out that the codes are based on our collective past experiences – many of those were large-scale tragedies. The model codes are updated every 3 years to address lessons learned as well as new technologies. Prioritizing a new threat over requirements based on 100+ years of experience is a recipe for disaster.
This video from NFPA is a brief look at the original impetus for today’s egress requirements. To learn even more, I recommend the book by David von Drehle called Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. You’ll never look at a locked exit the same way.