#101Wednesdays: Locked egress door leads to multiple-death fire… Again

It's a scenario we've seen time and time again: occupants unable to escape a burning building because of locked egress doors. A fundamental tenet of the Life Safety Code is free egress; occupants must be able to get out of the building without the use of any keys, tools, special knowledge, or effort (with a handful of exceptions). The Code has its roots in fires such as the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 garment workers, most of them young, immigrant women, who were unable to escape because the owners locked the stairwell doors. And just a week ago, 40 teenage girls died in a Guatemala youth shelter fire when the girls were locked in a classroom during a series of disturbances.  


The Code is very clear: an occupant must be able to open an egress door with not more than one latch and/or lock releasing operation (residential dwelling units can have two operations, or three if existing). Operation of the releasing mechanism must be readily obvious under all lighting conditions, including no light. If you encounter anything other than this arrangement, it needs to be closely looked at. Only a few exceptions to the free egress rule exist in NFPA 101. The most obvious applies to detention and correctional occupancies, which are sub-classified based on five “use conditions.” Depending on the use condition, certain doors can be locked against egress. Additional life safety features must be provided commensurate with the use condition. Related to detention and correctional occupancies, some other occupancies are permitted to have lockups to temporarily secure occupants (e.g., a holding cell in a police station that does not meet the criteria of a full-fledged detention and correctional occupancy). Assuming the youth home in Guatemala was classified as a dormitory, Chapter 29 permits lockups in existing hotels and dormitories, subject to the special lockup provisions in 23.4.5. Lockup requirements vary and can include: staff training and capability to quickly release locks, detention-grade hardware on locked doors, automatic smoke detection, and automatic emergency forces notification.


Similarly, doors in health care occupancies (hospitals, nursing homes, and limited care facilities) have long been permitted to be locked in the direction of egress for patient and staff safety based on patient clinical needs. Examples include locking doors in the direction of egress in a psychiatric or dementia care unit. In such cases, staff must be able to readily unlock doors and undergo regular training as part of the facility's emergency action plan. More recently, in the 2009 edition, the Code introduced provisions to allow locking of egress doors in health care occupancies for “patient special needs.” These criteria are intended to address the need to lock doors from newborn nurseries to prevent infant abductions. The provisions include a series of enhanced life safety features to ensure the locks can be quickly released in the event of an emergency.


manual-delayed-egress_10951381Other exceptions to the free egress rule include special locking arrangements: delayed-egress locking systems (which will be known as “delayed-egress electrical locking systems” in the 2018 edition –, access-controlled egress door assemblies (which will be known as “sensor-release of electrical locking systems” –, and elevator lobby exit access door assemblies locking ( Where these special locking arrangements are utilized, the additional life safety requirements that accompany them must also be implemented.


Ensuring egress doors are not compromised needs to be a top priority. Don't be misled into thinking that security takes precedence over life safety. The Code recognizes the need for balance; see the special locking provisions described above. They can effectively enhance security while still maintained the needed level of life safety from fire. Coming in the 2018 edition, the Code will provide criteria for locking devices to prevent unwanted entry in locations such as school classrooms, recognizing the modern threat of active shooter scenarios. Like the other special locking arrangements, the use of such devices will also require a series of life safety requirements to be met. Honor the lives lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the Guatemala youth shelter by being vigilant in the enforcement of, and compliance with, the Code's free egress provisions.


Thanks for reading. And as always, stay safe.


Got an idea for a topic for a future #101Wednesdays? Post it in the comments below – I'd love to hear your suggestions!


Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to and click on “Free access to the 2015 edition of NFPA 101.”


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Greg Harrington
Principal Engineer, Staff Liaison to the Life Safety Code and Health Care Facilities Code technical committee projects.

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