Introduction To Special Egress Locks

The 2012 edition of the International Building Code permits this new category of locking device for I-2 occupancy facilities, which are health care facilities with 24-hour medical supervision for patients, and occupants are incapable of self-preservation...


You might be asking yourself, “What’s a ‘special egress’ lock?” Maybe the term even inspired you to read this article. You won’t find a “special egress lock” in a manufacturer’s catalog, and searching online won’t help much either. The 2012 edition of the International Building Code (IBC) has been revised to include the phrase “special egress lock” and the fact that this term isn’t defined by our industry is actually a good thing. Read on.

As described by the International Building Code (IBC), an I-2 occupancy is a health care facility with 24-hour medical supervision for patients, with some or all of the occupants incapable of self-preservation and requiring assistance to reach safety in an emergency. Typically, hospitals, addiction treatment facilities, nursing homes, and mental hospitals are considered I-2 occupancies.

These types of facilities often struggle with the balance between providing egress and protection from a fire, while also keeping their patients safe. “Elopement” is a term used to describe a nursing home or hospital patient leaving the unit or building on their own, which places them at risk of harm. Child and infant abduction is another concern when addressing the security of these facilities.

While psychiatric facilities have long been allowed some exceptions to the code requirements for free egress, many health care facilities have attempted to use a combination of code-compliant solutions, typically alarms and delayed egress locks, to prevent elopement and abduction. An alarm requires instantaneous response by staff, and a delayed egress lock only provides a 15-second egress delay (30 seconds with approval from the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) ) to allow staff to investigate and respond. False alarms can exacerbate the problem. For many hospitals and nursing homes these products made it difficult to keep patients safe, which prompted some to use a waiver or variance process to request permission to secure certain egress doors. Without a consistent set of code requirements addressing these applications, it was up to the facility and AHJ to agree on an acceptable solution.

The 2009 edition of the IBC includes revised language which helps to address this issue, but also adds to the confusion. Section 1008.1.9.6, “Special Locking Arrangements in Group I-2” describes the requirements for locking I-2 occupancies when the clinical needs of the patients require such locking. According to the IBC Commentary, these patients may include those with dementia / Alzheimer’s disease (note that psychiatric facilities are exempt from some of the requirements). Along with other requirements for the facility, this section describes locks which:

  • Unlock upon actuation of the sprinkler system / fire detection system,
  • Unlock upon loss of power to the lock,
  • Are capable of being unlocked remotely, and
  • Must be able to be unlocked by clinical staff at all times.

To meet these requirements, a fail-safe electrified lock would be used, which will unlock when power is removed. But the 2009 IBC section includes the term “delayed egress lock,” even though the requirements are not describing the product known by that name. There is no requirement in this section for a 15-second delay initiating unlocking, special signage, or a local alarm. By using a term that is an established type of electronic security product, the code may be interpreted to mean that a delayed egress lock is required, but the requirements listed in the code clearly describe a fail-safe electrified lock, not a delayed egress lock.

The 2012 edition of the IBC revises the language for this section. Instead of “delayed egress lock,” the term “special egress lock” is used, which eliminates some of the confusion by avoiding the use of defined product name. Because this is more of a clarification rather than an actual change, it may be used to help explain the intent of this section even though the 2012 edition may not be adopted in a project’s jurisdiction for several years. Additional refinements and clarifications have been proposed for the 2015 of the IBC.

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