A sign for an area of refuge near a hotel stairwell.

Unraveling the Area of Refuge Requirements

An area of refuge is one way to satisfy the accessible means of egress requirements. One of the most common questions when it comes to areas of refuge besides “What is an area of refuge?” is “Do the exit stairs need to be oversized?” Like so many other code questions the answer is “It depends.” It is going to depend on what is serving as your area of refuge.

Before diving into some key requirements for an area of refuge and identifying what triggers the need to increase the size of the exit stair, for those wondering what area of refuge means and when one might be required, check out my previous blog, “Accessible Means of Egress and the Life Safety Code.”

Regardless of what is considered the area of refuge, there are a few things that all areas of refuge have in common. The first is that they must comply with the general means of egress requirements found in Section 7.1 of the 2021 edition of
NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®. This section outlines a number of requirements including things like minimum headroom heights, levelness of walking surfaces, and the reliability of the means of egress.

Additionally, two-way communication systems are required in areas of refuge. The exact location of the systems will depend on what is being used as an area of refuge. The system itself, though, needs to allow for communication between the elevator landing and either the fire command center or a central control point that has been approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Directions outlining how to use it, how to request help using the system, and written identification of the location all need to be posted next to the two-way communication system. One key component of determining what can be considered an area of refuge is whether or not the building is protected throughout with an automatic, supervised sprinkler system.

Area of Refuge in a Building Protected Throughout by Sprinklers

If the building is equipped with sprinklers, then an entire story in the building can be considered an area of refuge provided certain criteria are met. The first is that each elevator landing needs to have a two-way communication system. It also must be equipped with both audible and visible signals. The story must have at least two accessible rooms or spaces that are separated from each other by smoke-resisting partitions. It is important to note that some occupancies, such as new and existing business, exempt the minimum two accessible rooms provision. This means that in those occupancies, only one room or space needs to be accessible. If an occupancy exempts the two accessible room provision, it will typically appear in the XX.2.2.12 paragraph of the occupancy chapter.

Area of Refuge in a Building Not Protected Throughout by Sprinklers

An area of refuge in a building not protected throughout with sprinklers must meet the specific requirements of and While I can’t cover every single requirement outlined in those particular sections, I will highlight key aspects.

The first deals with accessibility. The area of refuge must be situated in such a way that an occupant has access to a public way, by using either an exit or an elevator, without having to go back through building spaces that he or she already passed through. Additionally, the area of refuge must be accessible via an accessible means of egress. This means that travel to the area of refuge cannot involve stairs. An occupant needs to be able to reach the area of refuge by traveling over either level floor or ramps. This also requires careful consideration of available clear widths, particularly through doors. Typically, an accessible route requires 32 inches (810 mm) of clear width through a door. In some existing buildings, door openings may only be 28 inches (710 mm). The narrower door opening can be challenging for occupants using wheelchairs to navigate and may not be considered an accessible route.

If the area of refuge relies on the use of stairs to reach the public way, then the clear width of landings and stairs must be at least 48 inches (1220 mm). The clear-width measurement is taken between the handrails and must be maintained at all points below handrail height. There are two exceptions to the 48-inch (1220-mm) minimum width. The first is where the area of refuge is separated from the remainder of the story by a horizontal exit. The second is for existing stairs and landings. For existing landings and stairs, a minimum clear width of 37 inches (940 mm) must be provided at and below handrail height.

If the area of refuge relies on the use of an elevator to reach the public way, then the elevator must be approved for firefighters’ emergency operations. Additionally, the power supply must be protected against interruption from a fire in the building that originates outside the area of refuge. Lastly, the shaft housing the elevator must be a smokeproof enclosure. There are two exceptions to the smokeproof enclosure requirement. The first is for areas of refuge that are larger than 1000 ft2 (93m2) and that are created by a horizontal exit. The second exception is for elevators in towers. A tower is a structure that meets a very specific definition and is not occupied by the general public. There is a separate set of criteria for elevators in towers.

Regardless of whether an occupant will reach the public way via exit stairs or an elevator, a two-way communications system must be provided.

Any doors providing access to the area of refuge must have a sign. The area of refuge sign must read “AREA OF REFUGE,” display the international symbol of accessibility, have a nonglare finish, and have letters that contrast with the background. Further specifics for the sign are outlined in ICC A117.1, Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities. The sign(s) must be illuminated. Tactile signage is also required at each location. Additional signs are required wherever necessary to clearly indicate the direction of travel to an area refuge and at every exit not providing an accessible means of egress. The image below is an example of an area of refuge sign; however, tactile signage would also be required.

Another key aspect of an area of refuge is the presence of wheelchair spaces. Each area of refuge needs to have one wheelchair space that measures 30 inches x 48 inches (760 mm x 1220 mm) for every 200 occupants the area of refuge serves. The wheelchair spaces are not permitted to infringe on the required width of the means of egress for the occupant load served and must never reduce the width to less than 36 inches (915 mm). Each wheelchair space must be accessible without having to pass through more than one adjacent wheelchair space.

This is where our original question of “Do the exit stairs need to be oversized?” will be answered. The one scenario where you may need to increase the size of your stair is when the building is not sprinklered and you are using the exit stair as an area of refuge. If that particular area of refuge serves 350 people, then two wheelchair spaces would be required. The image below shows what this could look like. The oversized stair comes into play because the means of egress needs to maintain the required width for the occupant load or at a minimum of 36 inches (915 mm). This would include the stair landing.

If an area of refuge is less than 1000 ft2 (93 m2), then it needs to be proven that tenable conditions can be maintained within the area of refuge for at least 15 minutes when the separation creating the area of refuge is exposed to the worst-case fire scenario for that occupancy. Tenable conditions can be proven through either calculation or testing.

The last aspect of an area of refuge we will cover for a non-sprinklered building is separation. Each area of refuge must be separated from the remainder of the story by a minimum 1-hour fire resistance rated fire barrier. There are two exceptions to this. The first is that when a higher rating is required elsewhere within NFPA 101. The second is if the barrier is an existing barrier with at least a 30-minute fire resistance rating. An example of where a higher rating would be required is if the exit stair enclosure is serving as the area of refuge and the enclosure requires a 2-hour fire resistance rating based on the number of stories it serves.

The barriers and all openings in them must minimize air leakage and resist the passage of smoke. Door assemblies in these barriers must have at least a 20-minute fire protection rating. A greater rating is required where other portions of NFPA 101 require a higher rating. The doors must be either self-closing or automatic closing. All new fire door assemblies serving an area of refuge must be smoke leakage rated. Ducts are permitted unless other provisions of NFPA 101 prohibit them. If ducts penetrate the barrier, smoke-actuated dampers or some other approved means of resisting the transfer of smoke into the area of refuge must be provided.


There are a number of different configurations for an area of refuge. The presence of or absence of automatic sprinklers will be a driving factor in what can be considered an area of refuge. Regardless of what is considered an area of refuge, it is important to remember that it is just one way to provide an accessible means of egress.

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Valerie Ziavras
Technical Services Engineer, supporting product and content development throughout the association.

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