Published on January 1, 2020.

In Compliance | NFPA 101

Stairwell and exit enclosure penetrations and the balance between security and life safety

BY JENNIFER SISCO

While security measures and life safety features share the same goal of protecting building occupants, the means to achieve these forms of protection can sometimes conflict. A number of provisions were added to the current edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, that seek to strike a balance between security and life safety.

One issue that has become more common is the need to allow wall penetrations to accommodate the installation of devices such as cameras and card readers. While these are important security features in a wide variety of buildings, the presence of penetrations through fire resistance rated construction can theoretically compromise the level of fire safety in a structure. That’s why the current edition of NFPA 101 has addressed the issue in the form of a provision permitting penetrations made for security or communications systems, in metal conduit, located in exit stairways and other exit enclosures.

Recent events worldwide have resulted in a heightened awareness of the need for security—having accurate and timely information, such as security camera footage, can be critical in an emergency. Last year, a middle school principal in Indiana was credited with saving the lives of students and police during an active shooter incident at his school after providing 911 dispatchers with live updates on the shooter’s location—updates based on security camera footage—allowing responding police to quickly locate and isolate the shooter.

Cameras can also be essential life-safety assets for the fire service and other types of emergency responders. NFPA 101 requires that some high-rise buildings be provided with stairway video monitoring, which enables emergency responders to monitor the conditions of stairways, the status of occupant evacuation, and the availability of a building’s stairways during an evacuation event.

For any of this technology to be installed in exit stairs, special code allowances are required. The Life Safety Code provides a comprehensive list of permitted penetrations into stairways. In general, penetrations into exit stairways are limited to items necessary for life safety or proper functioning of the stairs, including doors for accessing and egressing the stairway; electrical conduit that serves the stairway for purposes such as lighting; piping and conduit for use in fire protection systems; and water or steam piping used for the heating or cooling of the enclosure.

Exit stairways are an essential life safety feature. These stairways represent places of relative safety within a building, providing direct and unobstructed access to the outside. They are classified as exits in NFPA 101 in the same way that an exterior door is classified as an exit. Therefore, it is imperative that these spaces are properly designed and maintained to be clear of any fire or life safety hazards. That’s why penetrations into exit stairways are limited to mitigate potential hazards within the stairway and to protect the integrity of the stairway enclosure.

Prior to the current 2018 edition, the Life Safety Code did not specifically permit penetrations for security systems. Although it was the intent of previous editions of NFPA 101 to permit these types of penetrations and equipment installed in exit stairways, the existing language in the code was often misinterpreted. This led to cameras in stairways being commonly—and incorrectly—cited as a code violation, namely in health care facilities.

Another common misconception about permitted penetrations is that these provisions pertain to equipment expressly allowed within an exit enclosure. These provisions are intended to limit the features allowed to be installed in the enclosure, or that would penetrate the fire resistance-rated construction surrounding the enclosure, but do not necessarily regulate the equipment within the enclosure itself. The installation of necessary equipment is permitted as long as it does not interfere with the use of the stairway as an exit or area of refuge. As a result, the code permits penetrations from conduit for security systems and the installation of security cameras as long as the cameras do not interfere with the use of the stairway.

The intent here is to offer an important clarification for all code users that the goals of providing security and life safety do not have to be at odds.

Jennifer Sisco, PE, is a fire protection engineer at NFPA. NFPA members and AHJs can use the Technical Questions tab to post queries on NFPA 101 at nfpa.org/101.