Fire alarm light signalLast week I answered a quick question about locking stairwell doors, and Jim Elder of Secured Design raised a great point in a comment on the post.  It is permissible by code to lock interior stair doors in schools and other types of buildings, but there are model code requirements for releasing the locks on the stairwell side.  This allows building occupants to leave the stairwell if it becomes compromised during a fire (here’s a short video about stairwell reentry).

In several recent school shootings, the fire alarm has been activated during the incident.  Currently, the International Building Code (IBC) and International Fire Code (IFC) require locked stairwell doors to be unlocked by a signal from the fire command center or other approved location.  But beginning with the 2024 edition, the I-Codes will also require stair doors to unlock upon activation of the fire alarm and/or upon power failure.

If the adopted code requires stairwell doors to unlock upon fire alarm activation, and the alarm is activated during a lockdown, the stair doors would then allow access to other floors of the building.  I am not a fire alarm expert, but I know that in some jurisdictions the AHJ will consider a plan for schools to secure-in-place for a limited period of time when there is an unplanned fire alarm.  For example, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security has issued a bulletin called Guidance to Schools for Unplanned Fire Alarms.  The bulletin states:

If a school is equipped with a positive sequence fire alarm system, the school may develop a plan to investigate an unplanned fire alarm activation before activating the audible and visible alarms requiring evacuation. Such a plan must include a designated school official with proper training to acknowledge an alarm has been activated and initiate an investigation within 15 seconds. These schools can secure-in-place for up to 3 minutes in order for the designated school official to investigate the unplanned fire alarm activation. Following the 3-minute period, the school must evacuate, unless an active shooter is verified to be on the school’s property.

The bulletin also clarifies that doors may not be barricaded or blocked, and that egress must not be obstructed.  Read the complete bulletin here.  As noted in the bulletin, activating the fire alarm during an active shooter incident could cause building occupants to begin evacuation, exposing them to the shooter.  The response to an unplanned fire alarm – including the status of the stairwell door locks – is an important consideration when creating a school security and safety plan.

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