Fire! No single word strikes more panic in the heart of a security director. Why? Because national, regional, and local building codes demand that electronic access control systems allow free egress from any building evacuated due to a fire alarm or other life-safety threat. In approving security installations, many local fire authorities interpret this to mean a virtual shutdown of access control, along with the release of all electronic locks.
For a fire marshal, saving lives is paramount, so it makes good sense to remove all obstacles that might hinder the evacuation of a building. For a security director, who balances life-safety with the protection of assets against both internal and external criminal activity, an uncontrolled evacuation is an invitation to plunder. A well-conceived evacuation plan starts with system design and interoperability between fire and access control systems. However, a major issue affecting building evacuation is the fact that access control system release cannot be localized. Fire systems, on the other hand, have evolved to the point where alarm activity can be localized.
Access system requirements are more far reaching. Elevators must be recalled to the designated floor and automatically de-activate. At that point, they can only be operated with a firefighter’s key. Even access-controlled floors must be released to the firefighters. Typically, on all floors, a light in the elevator lobby beside the hall call buttons must indicate that the elevators are in fire mode.
On the alarm floor, as well as above and below it, all electronic locks on egress doors must release. But access systems typically do not distinguish between the doors that must be released and those that need not be affected by a particular alarm. This can leave an entire building insecure. Even if the access system can communicate closely enough with the fire system to be more discretionary, the system integrator has to convince the fire marshal that this is necessary.
In a building with long corridors (or open stairwells), there may be fire/smoke doors located at various intervals. These doors may be kept open during normal conditions, but need to close during an evacuation in order to restrict airflow. The fire system typically engages electro-magnetic door closers – reverse maglocks that hold doors open. If the fire door is access controlled, and normally closed, it must remain latched, but not locked. There are several ways to keep it closed but de-activate the maglocks, but local fire authorities do not always approve of these solutions. Stairwells are also problematic, as most fire marshals demand the ability to re-enter from stairwells at any floor.
Finally, the security director should know the status of every lock and door in the building. The easiest way to accomplish this, of course, is to have a universal release of all doors in the event of an alarm. But it’s also the least effective way of controlling the building in this stressful situation. To achieve effective control, there must be careful consideration by the system designer and consultation with the fire marshal.
Kevin Maynard is director of marketing at SimplexGrinnell (www.simplexgrinnell.com), a leading provider of fire and integrated security systems based in Westminster, MA.