NFPA 101 requirements for exit stair signage and markings
NFPA Journal, January/February 2011
There are new and revised requirements in the 2009 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, for signage in exit stairs and for marking the stairs. Some of these requirements apply to both new and existing construction, and it’s important to know what they are.
The stair identification requirement was primarily introduced in response to a 1991 high-rise building fire in Philadelphia in which three firefighters died. It was night, the building had lost power, and the firefighters were running out of air and lost their way. They called for help but were unsure what floor they were on.
Paragraph 220.127.116.11.4 of NFPA 101 now requires that all new enclosed stairs serving three or more stories and existing stairs serving five or more stories have identification signs in the stairwell. The sign is to be located on each floor landing and indicate the floor level, the top and bottom of the stair, stair identification, and the direction to discharge. NFPA 101 also states that all sign letters should be a minimum of an inch (2.5 centimeters) high, except the floor designation letters, which should be 5 inches (13 centimeters) high. In accordance with ICC/ANSI A117.1, the floor designation must also be tactile.
If the stair does not provide access to the roof, the sign must indicate “No Roof Access.” If access to the roof is available, it is best not to note that on the sign, since emergency responders will understand that roof access is available. If that information is placed on the sign, some occupants may go to the roof instead of down to grade where they can get out of the building. If an existing sign indicates roof access or something similar, it can remain; NFPA 101 does not prohibit stating roof access, but such a statement is not recommended.
The sign should be mounted about 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the floor and be visible with the stair door open or closed. If the building requires emergency lighting, the stair sign must be illuminated under emergency lighting conditions. The sign can be attached to the wall, or the information may be stenciled on the wall. This sign provides valuable information for emergency responders and occupants. It will allow occupants to identify where they are in the building and help direct emergency responders to anyone needing assistance.
A separate provision in Section 18.104.22.168.4 applies to stairs Paragraph lead upward to reach grade. These stairs require directional signs showing the direction to grade at each floor-level landing. Again, such signs must be illuminated under emergency lighting conditions if the building is required to have emergency lighting, and the sign should be placed such that it can be seen with the stair door open or closed. This signage is not required if the signs noted in Paragraph 22.214.171.124.4 are provided, or where the stair only extends one story below grade and the direction of egress is obvious.
Section 126.96.36.199.5 of the 2009 edition of NFPA 101 also requires exit stair path marking. Section 188.8.131.52.5 deals with the marking of the stair tread nosing, stair landing nosing, stair handrails, and stair discharge doors. However, this marking is not required unless called for by the occupancy chapter, and no occupancy chapter currently requires this marking. Now that the details are included in Chapter 7, occupancy chapters in subsequent editions of NFPA 101 may use this provision.
It is important to note that stair signage requirements are retroactive for existing stairs five or more stories high and stairs that extend more than one floor below grade.
Chip Carson, P.E., is president of Carson Associates, Inc., a fire engineering and code consultancy. He is a former member of NFPA's Board of Directors.