Special Purpose Exit Devices Take On New Roles

April 2, 2019
The exit device has matured from a life-saving crash bar to an all-purpose fire, hurricane, electronic access control, life safety, and theft deterrent weapon

The tragic deaths of nearly 600 Chicago residents in the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire spurred the development of the first Von Duprin panic bars that allowed rapid egress in the event of life-threatening events.  Exit devices are now taking on many additional roles including protection from extreme weather, forced entry, internal theft, and threats of violence, while providing many electronic access control functions.  A classic example is the new – and urgent – role of emergency lockdown to defend against mass casualty attempts.

For example, a large faith-based campus hosts thousands of persons each week, including a very large number of children, students, visitors, and persons with special needs.  The organization places high value on the lives and safety of all who use the campus.  Special purpose exit devices with central lockdown have become a critical component of an extensive security process, helping ensure the safety of the staff, students, and visitors.  This is just one of the many special purposes that exit devices are now being asked to perform.

Building, Fire, and Electrical Codes regulate exit device applications in North America.  The International Building Code (IBC), along with the Life Safety Code and in some cases the National Electric Code, provide the regulatory basis for exit device applications. UL Listed Fire Rated hardware will contain a label stating the rated time, which may be up to three hours.  These codes are adopted by state and local jurisdictions and are applied by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) at the local level.  Treat the AHJ with great respect as he or she can suggest creative solutions or make your life very difficult.

A given jurisdiction (City, County, State) may or may not have adopted the latest version of the building, fire or electrical codes.  Periodic code updates usually contain subtle changes that might affect your project.  An excellent three-page primer on exit devices, “Basics of Panic Hardware – Allegion,” can be found on at https://preview.tinyurl.com/allegionpanic.

Electronic Access Control

Electronic Access Control functions like the remote locking application described at the above campus, have become increasingly common in exit devices.  Solenoid electric latch retraction has been the common practice for some time, but motor driven lock and unlock functions are gaining popularity due to their low power consumption, quiet operation and low heat buildup.  Hardware suppliers universally offer these options.  Command Access and Security Door Controls both offer electronic retrofit kits for many existing exit devices.

An increasing number of additional electronic options are being offered for exit devices as well.  Local alarms can be battery powered, hardwired, and now often Power over Internet.  Electric latch retraction, electrified outside lever trim, exit alarms, delayed-egress, request to exit switches, and door or latch position switches are generally available.


Hurricane and Tornado threats have created another set of building code requirements in a number of regions.  View  “Allegion Winstorm Solutions” for a good discussion of tornado and hurricane codes and requirements, https://tinyurl.com/allegionwind.

FEMA 320 provides guidelines for residential tornado storm shelters while FEMA 361 covers community shelters for more than 16 persons.  Testing is done to ICC500-2014 standard with wind speeds up to 250 mph and 15-lb projectile impacts at 100 mph.[1] 

Florida has been at the forefront of hurricane protection and the Florida Building Code (FBC) TAS 201, 202, 203 covers wind and impact zones, typically coastal areas.  ANSI-ASTM E330 covers testing for wind only in non-impact zones more typical of interior areas. [2]  Many building codes reference the FBC codes while Texas codes were developed independently. 

Severe weather applications for exit devices will sometimes use three point locking and various door reinforcements as required.  They are tested as complete assemblies.  When doing upgrades, be sure the door and frame assembly comply, as well. Most North American hardware manufacturers now provide hurricane and tornado compliant exit devices.

Fire-Rated Assemblies

Fire rated assemblies have been an exit device staple for many years.  Exit devices installed on fire rated doors will require a similar level rating and appropriate special labeling.  Thermal activated “fire bolts” are used in some cases where exit devices are applied in fire rated assemblies with only a top latch.

Maintaining good engagement is critical for fire rated vertical rod assemblies.  Von Duprin’s cable operated vertical rod system allows easy routine adjustments, and is not susceptible to alignment issues.

Many panic devices that exit to the outside do not pass through fire-rated walls and therefore do not require fire ratings.  In some cases however, close proximity to another structure or hazard may require a fire rated assembly.

Weatherized exit devices are generally available for outdoor applications like exterior gates.  Waterproof switches, drain holes, and rust resistant materials defend against rain and high humidity environments.  A note of caution:  make sure the lubricants in exterior exit devices will function in extreme weather, sand, or dust environments you might encounter in your specific outdoor application.

Forced Entry

Forced Entry is another area where exit devices are becoming more specialized.  Nearly all exit device suppliers provide multi-point locking options for fire or security ratings, as well as deadlocking latches.  Von Duprin also offers an Extra Performance (XP) two piece “smart” latch that changes shape when pressure is applied, doubling the resistance to outside pull pressure. 

Securitech specializes in extreme attack resistance and has developed a series of Multi-Bolt™ panic bar applications with mortise locks, and secondary bolts on top, hinge, and latch sides of the doors.  These were developed to resist extended robust external attacks, and for tornado, hurricane and fire rated applications.   The following video shows an actual break-in attempt.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOcus8U89hg

Precision Hardware (phi™) builds the extreme service Arm-A-Door® exit device (shown in headline photograph) designed to protect against forced entry and internal theft.  When the door is closed, barricade bars extend to both sides of the frame.  Pushing the exit device retracts both sides, allowing rapid egress. 

The industrial strength Precision panic bar is rated for panic, fire, and hurricane.  Exit alarm, RQE switch, and battery and AC power adaptors are available.  Precision Hardware has been noted in institutional and commercial markets for its very reliable exit devices – especially where abusive student traffic is a concern. 

Adams Rite’s popular EX88 exit device uses the unique star wheel that captures the strike on the frame side, preventing spreading attacks.  https://www.adamsrite.com/en/site/adamsritecom/products/exit-devices/ex-series/

Detex® has long focused on exit control hardware and defending against back-door theft.  In recent years the company has broadened its line to include multiple point plus hinge-side security and standard exit devices. Other functions include EAC functions, delayed-egress, weatherized products, central dogging, and door operators. http://www.detex.com/Products/Literature/Mini-Catalog

Sargent division of ASSA ABLOY typifies the current offerings from domestic hardware companies with multi-point latching for additional fire or physical security protection.  Options include; alarmed exits, latchbolt monitor, door status and RQE switches, electric latch retraction, electric dogging, double cylinders, internal visual locked indicator, delayed-egress, and electroluminescence for dark or smoke-filled passages.

Delayed Egress

Delayed Egress has become another popular exit device option where back door thefts, memory care escapes or hit-and-run attacks are a problem. International Building Code now approves delayed egress for memory care facilities. Delays can also be integrated into electronic access systems for delayed or free egress with authorized credential. This has become a popular option for college dorm stairwell exits.

Most jurisdictions will approve these systems where an approved automatic fire detection or sprinkler system is installed.  Areas of assembly, education and areas with hazardous materials however, are not allowed.

Three basic types of delayed-egress systems are currently in use. The first uses a magnetic lock with a mechanical or capacitance “touch sense” exit bar.  The second uses a magnetic lock with built-in exit sensor.  The third type is a self-contained exit device. 

Detex also provides a weatherized delayed-egress device for exterior gate applications.  Since memory care applications were only recently approved, there is likely a considerable market for these upgrades.

The following link gives a good delayed-egress overview.  http://www.silvaconsultants.com/delayed-egress-locking-systems-on-exit-doors.html

Specialty Designs

Recessed Mid-Panel concealed vertical rod devices fit tight against the door.  The low profile esthetics often make these panels an attractive option in aluminum entrance doors as well.  These mid-panel devices don’t make good retrofit options unless the door was designed to accommodate the recessed mid-panel push pad.  The low profile panels defend against carts hitting the ends and are popular in corridor smoke or fire doors that are held open flush against a wall.  

Additional options: A number of the major suppliers have found markets for some useful options.  Von Duprin and Carey Automatic Doors (formerly Stanley Magic-Door) provide pneumatic latch retraction, closers and door operators for explosion proof applications.  Electroluminescent stickers that glow in dark or smoke-filled corridors are a great value.  In a recent hotel emergency, these inexpensive electroluminescent stickers would have been a great backup when primary and emergency power supplies were taken out by a single weather event.  Anti-microbial finishes for health care facilities, and internal visual indicator (for lockdown) can also be added to the option list.

Cameron Sharpe, CPP wrote for Caterpillar and Honeywell before working 25-years in hardware and electronic access distribution. [email protected]