Yesterday I stopped for breakfast with a deputy state fire marshal as I drove through South Carolina on my way from our office in Charlotte to our office near Atlanta. He barely had a chance to eat, as I was picking his brain about all of the things I’ve had on my mind for years. I’ll be doing some virtual training for code officials next year, and I want to make sure that I cover their most frequently-asked questions. It was a great opportunity to get some of his topics on the list.
One of the things we talked about was the need for firefighter access to buildings, and the problems associated with “exit-only” hardware. I can imagine the frustration when firefighters arrive on scene and are met with a door that has no exterior hardware to allow them to access that area of the building. With that said, when I was a specwriter it was common to specify emergency exits without exterior hardware.
I checked the International Fire Code (IFC) for a requirement for firefighter access doors, to see if there were specific locations or quantities of exterior doors that need – at minimum – outside key cylinders. Section 504 of the 2021 IFC addresses Access to Building Openings and Roofs:
504.1 Required access. Exterior doors and openings required by this code or the International Building Code shall be maintained readily accessible for emergency access by the fire department. An approved access walkway leading from fire apparatus access roads to exterior openings shall be provided where required by the fire code official.
504.2 Maintenance of exterior doors and openings. Exterior doors and their function shall not be eliminated without prior approval. Exterior doors that have been rendered nonfunctional and that retain a functional door exterior appearance shall have a sign affixed to the exterior side of the door with the words “THIS DOOR BLOCKED.” The sign shall consist of letters having a principal stroke of not less than 3/4 inch (19.1 mm) wide and not less than 6 inches (152 mm) high on a contrasting background. Required fire department access doors shall not be obstructed or eliminated. Exit and exit access doors shall comply with Chapter 10. Access doors for high-piled combustible storage shall comply with Section 3206.7.
In this section it doesn’t specifically say that the doors must have hardware on the exterior, but it sure reads as if the intent of the code is for required exterior doors to allow fire department access. It would be much easier and less destructive to facilitate this with a key or electronic credential in the key box rather than by using other means to breach the door.
Section 3206.7, which addresses fire department access doors for high-piled combustible storage areas, includes more specific requirements for the these doors. The code defines the required locations of fire department access doors and requires them to be shown on the construction documents. The lineal distance between the doors must be no more than 125 feet measured center-to-center, with the exception of existing buildings where the doors may be a maximum of 200 feet apart. The doors must be at least 3 feet wide x 6 feet 8 inches high, and must have signage on the exterior to identify them as fire department access doors. The locking devices must be “approved” (acceptable to the fire code official), and the IFC Commentary states:
Locking mechanisms must be approved by the fire code official. The fire service must be able to open the doors from the exterior side during an emergency. The locking mechanism must be designed to maintain the security of the building, to be readily openable from the egress side and to be openable by fire department personnel from the exterior.
This section of the IFC also requires key boxes to be installed, and to contain keys or devices to allow entry through the fire department access doors.