Code Requirements for Stairwell Doors

If stairwell doors do not allow for reentry and a stairwell becomes impassible, it can jeopardize the lives of those using the stairwell as a means of egress.

Another type of electrified hardware is occasionally used for stairwell reentry – sometimes called a “Hitower Lock” (a brand name). This is a frame-mounted device that controls the locking/unlocking via a lock modification. It’s not an electric strike, but it mounts in the same location so it could be confused with one.

Myth: The stairwell reentry requirements state that stair doors must unlock automatically upon fire alarm.

Fact: There is a slight distinction between codes, but the IBC states that the stair doors must be “capable of being unlocked simultaneously without unlatching upon a signal from the fire command center, if present, or a signal by emergency personnel from a single location inside the main entrance to the building,” while NFPA 101 states that “an automatic release that is actuated with the initiation of the building fire alarm system shall be provided to unlock all stair enclosure doors to allow re-entry.” The same type of hardware – failsafe locks or failsafe exit device trim – is used in either case, but the fire alarm interface will be different. There are additional requirements for two-way communication in the stairwell when stair doors do not allow free access at all times.

Myth: Both sides of a stair door can be locked as long as the door unlocks upon fire alarm.

Fact: I can’t count the number of times an architect or end user has asked me to specify hardware for a door that is locked all the time except during a fire alarm. If a door is a required egress door, VERY limited applications would allow the door to be locked in the direction of egress. NFPA 101 lists exceptions for certain existing occupancies, buildings permitted to have a single exit, and certain health care and detention/correctional occupancies. Most stair doors must allow free egress from the non-stair side at all times, and if there is a need to limit egress, options would be delayed egress hardware which delays egress for 15 seconds, or an alarm to discourage use of the door. Delayed egress locks are not allowed in every occupancy type, and there are additional code requirements for doors equipped with delayed egress locks.

Myth: Stair discharge doors opening to the exterior must unlock automatically upon fire alarm to allow firefighter access to the stair.

Fact: The IBC specifically states that “stairway discharge doors shall be openable from the egress side and shall only be locked from the opposite side.” There is no requirement in the IBC or NFPA 101/5000 for the exterior doors to automatically unlock for firefighter access, though it may be required by local jurisdictions. Unlocking these doors automatically upon fire alarm would impact the building’s security, and there are other ways for firefighters to gain access. If remote release of the stair discharge doors is required by a local jurisdiction, I highly recommend that these doors be controlled by a switch at the fire command center, rather than unlocked automatically upon fire alarm.


Lori Greene, AHC/CDC, CCPR, FDAI, is Spec Team Lead - New England, Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, based in Needham, MA. E-mail her at or visit

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