The use of electronic access control is on the rise and so is the need for integration between electronic locking mechanisms and building fire alarm systems. The following story offers a compelling reason to comply with local laws and current fire codes.

On Oct. 13, 2003, six Cook County employees died in a tragic downtown Chicago fire when the door locks on each floor leading from the stair tower remained locked, barring their escape. When the fire alarm sounded, all six people perished because they could not freely and immediately exit.

An Associated Press (AP) story reported that another group of employees managed to make it safely from the building. The group escaped the smoke by retreating back into the burning building by way of a door on an upper floor, after encountering a number of locked doors on several floors.

According to the AP story, if these locking mechanisms had been integrated with the building’s fire alarm system, the chances for survival would have been much greater. Subsequently, the incident led fire officials in Cook County, as well as other communities, to pass ordinances calling for the inclusion of sprinklers and the integration of access control within multiple floor stairways with a building’s fire alarm system.

Because of incidents such as this, fire officials have become more engaged with the workings of access control from a life safety standpoint. This was not the beginning of this trend, however, as in the late 1990s, the alarm community saw authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) in larger municipalities inspect the UL listing of motion detectors used to release locking mechanisms on access controlled entrances that act as fire exits.

Check the AHJ, ICC and NFPA first

Fire codes have been written by code-making bodies, such as International Code Council (ICC) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), that require integration between door and fire alarm. An overwhelming number of local communities have adopted them, making them law, and low-voltage firms are required to follow them or face fines and penalties.

Before you begin an access control installation, find out if the use of electronic locking mechanisms is permitted on your installation and, if so, which portions are excluded. The best way to determine this is to ask the local AHJ. Unfortunately, the growing trend in code enforcement is an official plans examination. In this case, you could find this out late in the game, often when the construction schedule is well underway.

Another way to get a fix on the issue is to conduct a rudimentary check with the International Fire Code (IFC), published by ICC (www.iccsafe.org). For example, in Section 1008.1.3.4, 2003 edition, the IFC states electronic access control is allowable in buildings that qualify as Group A, B, E, M, R-1 or R-2. This at least tells you whether electronic locking mechanisms are even an option.

Another important issue that you need to research before you begin an installation is whether you need to integrate certain electronic locking devices.

The International Residential Code (IRC), Section 1008.1.3.4(4), 2003 Edition, states the activation of such a fire alarm system should automatically unlock the doors. In addition, these doors must remain in the unlocked position until either the fire department or the occupant resets the fire alarm system.

The information contained within NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code, and NFPA 101, Life Safety Code, also will help determine if integration is required.

For example, Section 7.1.9 of NFPA 101, 2000 Edition states, “Any device or alarm installed to restrict the improper use of a means of egress shall be designed and installed so that it cannot, even in case of failure, impede or prevent emergency use of such means of egress unless otherwise provided in 7.2.1.6 and Chapters 18, 29, 22 and 23.”

How to integrate fire alarm systems with electric locks

There are essentially two types of access control locking mechanisms on the market: electromechanical and electromagnetic.

Electromechanical locking devices typically involve the use of a keeper that mechanically holds a movable gate in check, so the lock’s latch cannot move. The electromagnetic type uses magnetism to hold a metal armature fastened to the movable portion of a door in check. As long as power is supplied, the door will remain locked.

Just as there are two basic types of locking devices on the market, there are two different locking modes. The fail-secure mode ensures security when power is lost at the portal, whereas failsafe mechanisms allow the occupants to freely open the door.

In most cases, integration involves the use of a listed relay that simply breaks power to the locking mechanism. Another way to do this is to use a special access control power supply that provides an input to which the building fire alarm system can connect.

In either case, when a fire alarm occurs, power to all devices must be interrupted to allow egress.

Section 7.2.1.6.2(d) of NFPA 101, 2000 Edition, also calls for integration: “Activation of the building fire-protective signaling system, if provided, shall automatically unlock the doors in the direction of egress and the doors shall remain unlocked until the fire protective signaling system has been manually reset.”

The use of additional safe guards at the door

In the not-too-distant past, a low-voltage contractor was only required to place the electronic lock, a card reader and a simple pushbutton for exiting when installing an electronic access control system. But because of recent code changes, those days are over.

The term “failsafe” essentially means an electronic locking device will allow safe and quick exiting if the device fails, such as from a power failure within the local public electric bus. In this case, the door itself usually will use a passage lock that provides ready egress by simply turning a handle. This is by far the most economical way to go when there’s a choice.

Fail-securelocking applications involve an electronic lock that, when power fails, remains in a secure, locked condition, preventing occupants from leaving quickly. Whether the installation involves a fail-secure door strike or an electromagnetic lock, additional hardware is required at the door.

In this case, there are a number of considerations contained in Section 7.2.1.5, Locks, Latches, and Alarm Devices, NFPA 101, that must be followed. First, the affected doors must not contain key mechanisms, a tool of any kind or require special knowledge in order to open them.

When locking mechanisms are used where escape would not be readily available, NFPA 101, Section 7.2.1.6.2 ,calls for a number of auxiliary devices to assist occupants to quickly exit the building.

First, a motion sensor is required at the door that will automatically unlock the door. Second, a manual means of exiting also is required, such as a pushbutton next to the door. There should be a sign that clearly defines the purpose of the button, such as “Push to Exit.” Within this same section, you will find additional information on what the code requires when installing an access control system.         

COLOMBO is a 32-year veteran in the security and life-safety markets. He is director of FireNetOnline.com and a nationally recognized trade journalist located in East Canton, Ohio.