Exit Devices

Harold Fink, Locksmith, CRL CPS
Sun, Jan 31, 2010

EXIT DEVICES - What you need to know

Some confusion will always exist over where and when exit devices are required as a means of egress. Whether installing surface mounted, motion activated, interconnected, or mortise lock and latch type hardware, Life Safety codes need to be understood and complied with in order to ensure the safety of a building’s occupants. The confusion surrounding proper installation of exit devices is generally felt by persons whose job boundaries overlap many jurisdictions, allowing several building codes to come into play. A locksmith operating entirely within one jurisdiction will quickly home in on the local rules. There are ways to keep it simple, and that is what I hope to do for you with this article.

As locksmiths, we are often called upon to secure commercial buildings with commercial door locking hardware. It is my experience that the customer, more often than not, will be more concerned for the security of their property than they seem to be for the occupants of their building. This doesn’t mean your customer doesn’t care about safety as much as security. It is another reason how you can become indispensable as a resource to your commercial customers when you are called to solve what they perceive as only a security problem. Therefore, it is up to us to thoroughly understand the law and look out for the safety of our customer’s building occupants for them, and in the process, solve the customer’s problem, if it exists, to protect their property at the same time. Notice that I said safety first. Many times, you will not be the first one they talk to about a specific problem at a door, so be prepared to defend yourself with knowledge, experience, and references. I have never been ashamed to refuse to do something a customer wants done at a door, I just see it as a challenge in properly expressing to them how we can secure the door without ruining everything they have worked for due to a lawsuit. No one that I know wants the loss of life on their conscience. Without being well versed in the laws, you will have no credibility with your most valuable accounts when you fail to properly assess a situation and cause additional work at that opening to be performed. Let’s get it right the first time.

As a professioal who started his career focused on Life Safety in a hospital environment, I feel uniquely qualified to offer advice and recommendations to both clients and my peers alike on this topic. I feel fortunate that my training was obtained first in a hospital as an institutional locksmith, because there will always be someone more important than the hospital locksmith to determine what should be done when there is confusion about what type of device is to be used and how well it does or does not provide security for the area near egress. It was not until I left the institutional locksmith position and went out on my own that I realized that nearly all my customers seemed to have no regard for, or understanding of life safety. At the same time, we need to remember that we will usually not get called until there is a malfunction or failure in security at a point of egress, so I tend to be very forgiving of my customers, and instead focus on making sure they are left secure without risk to their property OR their occupants. In other words, if you don’t know life safety, it is only a matter of time before you will be at least embarrassed to have gotten an installation wrong for selecting the wrong hardware, or at worst, in court attempting to defend your own actions that led to a death where someone could not exit a building.

In essence, life safety codes revolve around the most important aspect of the code, and that is, to exit a building without any prior knowledge or understanding of what locks a door. As you view an opening that you are to be working on, look above the door and see if an EXIT sign is there, and if it is lit. Now, envision yourself in that same area with zero visibility, unable to breath because of smoke, and without a key or any knowledge of locks. You need to exit now. The only thing you can see is that exit sign. Run for the door. Were you able to exit and save your own life?

Now that I have offended many of my professional peers by drastically oversimplifying a serious topic, I just want to remind you that if you ever get confused, or don’t know what you should do, remember what I just said, because it may be just that simple in the Fire Marshall’s eyes, and that, my friend, is the person responsible for making sure you get it right, and will be the person whose recommendation you will be required to abide by, so why not keep it simple by looking at things simply? Again, being self employed, remember that if you get it wrong, your customer may feel you should not be paid for a job that you got wrong initially and required return visits or purchase of additional hardware not recommended from the beginning. Another reason for a well written disclaimer on your invoice when you feel it is necessary.

When we focus on commercial locking hardware and only exit devices, several references are recognized: the National Fire Protection Assn. (NFPA) publishes standards NFPA 101 Code for Safety to Life from Fire in Buildings and Structures (Life Safety Code) and NFPA 80 Standard for Fire Doors and Fire Windows; Underwriters Laboratories Inc. (UL) publishes standard UL 305 Panic Hardware; and Builders Hardware Manufacturers Assn. (BHMA) publishes standard ANSI /BHMA A516.3 Exit Devices.

Exit Devices Completely Defined

By definition given in the aforementioned publications, we offer three basic types of exit devices:

Exit Locks

Usually single point locks or latches actuated by a paddle or lever with 15 lbs. maximum force to unlatch but not meeting the definition of Panic Hardware given below. These may be installed under all codes cited in any means of egress where Panic Hardware or Fire Exit Hardware is not required, or where local authority having jurisdicton has approved such applications.

Panic Hardware

Panic Hardware defined as crossbar or pushpad actuated releasing device that meets the following criteria:

1. Whose actuating member (like a push bar) is one-half the width of the door or longer, (2) Releases with 15 lbs. max. force at any point on the actuating member, and is, (3) listed and, (4) labeled by a nationally-recognized inspection agency with production follow up inspection.

This definition suffixes for NBC, SBC, NFPA 101, and (draft) IBC, but not for the others. UBC additionally requires (5) a 50 lbs. max. release force anywhere on the actuating member while a 250 lbs. force is applied to the door, loading the latch against the strike, and also that, (6) release of the latch bolt does not depend on the spring.

UL 305 has all of the above requirements except for the actuating member length (one-half width of the door minimum). This allowed exit locks to be classified to UL 305 as Panic Hardware while unacceptable as such under the five codes cited.

A revised UL 305 is now undergoing canvass for ANSI status in which mention of actuating bar length has been added, cautioning that the local code should not be consulted for length requirement before installation. ANSI /BHMA A516.3 has all of the 6 requirements above plus more than sixteen severe tests for strength, endurance, and resistance to environmental damage. These tests are the basis for a classification of Panic Hardware into Grades 1 or 2.

Fire Exit Hardware

Fire Exit Hardware is defined under all above codes and standards as an exit device meeting the following four criteria:

1. Qualifies for labeling as Panic Hardware.

2. Fire tested and fire-rated by an approved independent testing agency with production follow up inspections. An example of an approved independent testing agency would be the Underwriter’s Laboratories, or UL.

3. Has no dogging or device to maintain unlatched status; or, having such, having a system to release the dog and latch the door in response to a fire alarm.

4. Has a proper label affixed with: “Fire Exit Hardware” and the hourly rating.

Therefore, all Approved Fire Exit Hardware is, by definition, also Panic Hardware but not vice versa.

A subject of both panic hardware and fire exit hardware is the delayed egress panic or fire exit hardware. These devices are permitted only under restricted conditions and basically delay opening of the door for 15 to 30 seconds while an alarm sounds, meanwhile instantly opening in the event of fire or fire alarm. There are ten areas of restrictions which vary from code to code, but generally only in a matter of degree. Most interesting to this author however, is the fact that an absolute contradiction in hardware requirements exists between the codes.

The NBC requires that after a delayed egress the door relock automatically after 30 second delay, while the other codes require manual relocking. This means the manufacturers must offer two models of each device - The one to be used will depend upon the code observed.

Mandatory Locations for Exit Devices

Finally, we will want to examine where exit devices are required. An exit lock of some type is required on every means of egress door. There are several exceptions such as for one and two family dwellings, jails, etc.

Panic Hardware on all means of egress doors is required now by the NBC and SBC on all assembly and education occupancies with occupant load of 100 and over without exception, the UBC on all occupancy rooms with occupant load of 50 or more and all corridors, all hazardous occupancies (except garages and hangars) regardless of load, and institutional occupancies with occupant load of 50 or more, except hospital patient sleeping rooms, jails, and other detention facilities.

As you can see there are notable differences in requirements, and AHJs may impose more stringent requirements than any in the model code they have partially or totally adopted.

When is Fire Exit Hardware Required?

Fire Exit Hardware is required on any Fire-rated door which otherwise requires panic hardware, and the fire-rating (hours) must be as great as that of the door. This applies under all codes cited.

Having listed all exit device requirements in the U.S. how about devices desired instead of required? We find a tremendous number of mercantile and mail occupancies where the managers desire an alarm or delayed egress. The panic or fire exit hardware is an excellent choice for these sites, offering a wide range of options for security and access control.

The author is predicting, because of various factors, that the new IBC will contain the provisions of the “First Draft” namely Panic Hardware is required only on all Assembly and Education occupancies with occupancy load of 100 or more (without exceptions).

Note how this is identical to the NBC and SBC presents requirements for panic hardware i.e. in all Hazard occupancies, most  institutional occupancies, and for all assembly and education occupancies with 50 (vice 100) or more occupants. In the U.S. West far fewer panic hardware devices will be needed.

It is predicted that the change to UL 305 Panic Hardware directing attention to the length of the actuating member versus the code requirement will be adopted along with the rest of the document as an ANSI/UL 305-1998. This will bring much needed scrutiny in this area of hardware, where devices labeled “Panic Hardware” are not actually “Panic Hardware” as defined by any of the five codes cited (including the new IBC) unless the actuator is one-half door width or longer. Locksmiths’ attention will play a key role in proper selection.

It is further predicted that ANSI/BHMA A156.3 devices, now in revision, will contain drastically increased strength and durability requirements including a 500 lbs. security test (equal to a mortise lock) impact tests of 70 ft-lbs. or higher, and one-half million cycles to attain a newly defined Grade 1. Present Grade 1 requirements will become Grade 2 and present Grade 2 will become new Grade 3.

A certification program for exit devices is in effect, sponsored by BHMA, and with UL administering the program. Devices certified by the Underwriter’s Laboratories to meet the ANSI/BHMA A156.3 are listed by Grade in an annual derictory published by BHMA. A locksmith may choose from this directory to ensure that an exit device is of the highest quality.

As a rule, whenever any confusion could arise about what panic hardware or fire exit hardware is required at any given opening, I will make notes on my invoices why a particular grade or type of exit device was chosen for a job, if for no other reason than to remind myself and my customer why we did something at that door. You may call it a disclaimer, however, a simple disclaimer written by yourself can easily be torn to shreds by competent attorneys that have thousands of wrongful death dollars in their sights. Often, I will show consideration for a customer to have to replace hardware in a given situation, but only after documenting the decisions made and by whom, effectively disclaiming my consent to this decision, but understanding that in the larger scheme of things, I am allowing my customer to do what they see fit, within their budget, and still allow myself to still be paid for hardware that is found to be required at that opening in the future. I have found this to be necessary because a customer may mistakenly come to the conclusion that you are merely trying to upsell them, when in fact, you may be the most knowledgeable person they have ever dealt with about their door. To disclaim any responsibility for an installation where you suspect the device is insufficient is unconscionable. Always view a potential argument about these matters as just another challenge to you that lured you to become a locksmith. The challenge in this case is to properly educate your customer about proper hardware selection, no matter how difficult, time consuming and unrewarding it may seem at times. You are unlocking their mind to the potential loss of life that can occur when there is a fire in their building, whether they are there or not, and whether the occupants were even allowed to be there or not. Even a criminal needs to be allowed proper egress, it may take 15 or 30 seconds, but they have to be allowed to exit.

When you are called to a situation where your customer is insisting on additional security at a door where life safety is obviously a concern, be prepared to help your customer as best you can, but within the laws that affect your jurisdiction, and in a manner where you will not be required to change hardware because it was not permitted due to the Codes applicable to your area. When you sense that a job may be contracted only to someone that wants to ignore Life Safety or Fire Safety in a specific situation, remind your customer of the weight on their conscience that will result should anyone ever be harmed due to failure of proper egress from that building or containment of fire in areas of that building. Let your customer know that you refuse to bear that burden for them, but instead are there to make sure they are completely informed, and never misinformed about fire and its potential devastation. It is not sufficient to merely disclaim any responsibility for installation of hardware that you know is not compliant. Your complete knowledge in this topic ensures that they will hire a company that is respectful of their own responsibilities with regard to the safety of building occupants in the event of fire. When you thoroughly understand the codes that apply in a given situation, you will be armed with the evidence you need to better educate and guide your customer to a security solution that takes Life Safety and Fire Containment into complete consideration. Thorough understanding of Life Safety Codes and Fire Protection make you worth much more than someone who chooses to ignore life safey and fire protection through ignorance or neglect. Ultimately, your knowledge and attention to detail in these matters will result in you being the first one called upon to install exit devices right the first time.