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Solving Security Problems Related to Stairways

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Building stairways are required in multi-story structures and are the primary means of emergency egress in most buildings. The number, type, and location of stairways is regulated by state and local building codes. The International Building Code (IBC) is the model code which is widely used in the United States. Government agencies must adopt the IBC through the legislative process before it becomes law within their jurisdiction. Some agencies adopt the IBC exactly as written, while others insert language that deletes, modifies, or adds requirements to the IBC.


Architects closely follow the building code when designing buildings, however there is often much latitude in where stairways can be placed and how they are configured. The architect's goal is to create a building that meets the owner's operational requirements and to maximize the usable floor space. Unfortunately, when trying to achieve these goals, there is often little or no thought given to security. This is usually not a deliberate omission, but rather that the subject of security simply doesn't come up this early in the design phase. As a result, the stairways are often constructed in such a way that makes the building difficult or impossible to properly secure. This creates security vulnerabilities that the owner and occupants must endure for the lifetime of the building.


The following are some common problems in stairway design from a security standpoint.


This problem occurs when stairways are located so that people must travel between a non-secured area and a secured area to reach a stairway. The drawing above shows an apartment building where access to the stairways is made using a hallway in the residential area. To get to a stairway from the parking garage, people must pass through the elevator lobby and down the residential hallway to reach the stair.


The parking garage is secured using an overhead door at the street, but people can easily sneak into the garage as vehicles enter and exit. Because of the ease in which people can get into the garage, it is for all practical purposes a non-secured area. The door between the garage and the elevator lobby cannot be kept locked because it provides the only means of access to the stairways. This creates a security vulnerability in that anyone who has access to the parking garage now has access to all residential areas in the building.


While the example above shows this problem at an apartment building, this problem can also exist at many commercial buildings. Similar conditions can also exist inside of a building when a publicly-accessible area such as a cafeteria or public conference room is located adjacent to secured area and the only path to a stairwell is through the secured area.


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Correcting Problem #1 in a building that is already constructed can require a major remodeling project and in most cases is cost prohibitive. This emphasizes the importance of designing the building correctly in the first place. At buildings where remodeling is impractical, there are a few "workarounds"  that can be used to improve security. These include:


Workaround #1 - Locked Doors with Release on Fire Alarm

It may be possible to lock the doors between the non-secured area and the secured area provided that doors are connected the building fire alarm system. Authorized users would be issued keys that allowed passage through the door, or an access control system could be installed that allowed entry using a code or card. When the fire alarm was activated, the door would automatically unlock, allowing people without a key or card to reach a stairway to exit.


This type of arrangement requires specific approval from building code officials (often called the Authority Having Jurisdiction or AHJ). This approval is often denied because there are emergencies other than fire (earthquake, active shooter, chemical spill, etc.) that require a person to exit, so simply unlocking the door when the fire alarm is activated is not acceptable. However, in some cases, the AHJ may approve this arrangement.


Workaround #2 - Locked Doors with Emergency Release Button

It may be possible to lock the doors if an emergency release button or pull station is provided on the non-secured side of the door. Authorized users would enter using their key or access card. In an emergency, a person without a key or card could operate the emergency release button, causing the door to unlock to allow egress. Most often, the emergency release button would also be connected to an audible alarm to discourage the use of the button except in an actual emergency. Signs would be provided providing instructions on the use of the emergency release button. AHJs will often approve this type of arrangement, but may require that the door also be connected to unlock when the fire alarm is activated as described above.

Workaround #3 - Unlocked Doors with Emergency Exit Alarms

In some cases, the AHJ will not allow the door to locked under any circumstances - it must allow free egress at all times. They may quote requirements from the building codes that state "people must be able to open an exit door at all times without keys, tools, or special knowledge" and claim that having to operate an emergency release button requires "special knowledge".

In these cases, emergency exit alarms can be installed on the doors. These would allow authorized users to use the door, but sound an alarm if an unauthorized person attempted to enter. To allow authorized users to use these doors, a key-operated switch or card reader should be provided on the outside (non-secured side) of the door, and a request-to-exit motion detector should be provided on the inside (secured side) of each door.


When entering, authorized users would use their key or access card before opening the door. This would temporarily bypass the exit alarm, allowing them to pass through without setting off the alarm. Similarly, when users were exiting, they would activate the request-to-exit motion detector, temporarily bypassing the alarm and allowing them to exit without setting off the alarm. Signs would be provided that indicate that an alarm will sound if the door is opened without the use of a key or access card.


This arrangement would discourage intruders from using the door, and provide the best possible security for the door considering that it must be left unlocked. Additional security can be provided if video surveillance cameras are used in conjunction with the exit alarms and these cameras are configured to automatically record when the alarm is activated.


Workaround #4 - Doors with Delayed-Egress Devices

This workaround is identical to Workaround #3, except that a delayed-egress device is used on the door instead of a regular emergency exit alarm. In addition to providing an audible alarm, these devices provide a short-delay (typically 15 seconds) between the time the alarm is activated and when the door can be opened. This can serve as a further deterrent to the unauthorized use of the door. (See Delayed-Egress Locking Systems on Exit Doors for more information.)


It should be emphasized that all of the workarounds described above are compromise solutions and not nearly as effective as having a building that is designed correctly from a security standpoint in the first place. We would strongly discourage the design of any new building that relies on one of these compromise solutions to provide security.



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This problem occurs when stairways serve both non-secured floors and secured floors and there is no internal separation with the stairway. For example, the stairway in the drawing above serves two floors of the parking garage, as well as four floors of office space. The parking garage floors are open to the public, making them non-secured floors, while the office floors are restricted areas, making them secured floors. The stairway discharges at the street level. People on the parking floors exit by going up the stairway to the ground floor, while people on the upper office floors go down the stairway to the ground floor.


Because there is no internal separation within the stairway, people can get into the stairway on one of the unsecured parking floors, and then walk up the stairway to any of the  secured office floors. Although the doors between the stairs and office floors can be kept locked, this requires that locks be installed on each floor. In a high-rise building with 50 or more floors and multiple stairways, this can involve the installation of hundreds of locking devices.


Building codes typically require that locked stairway doors be capable of unlocking when the fire alarm is activated, requiring that electric locking devices be used. All of this can involve substantial costs. Also, some AHJs require that stairway doors be left unlocked at specific intervals (such as at every fifth floor) or prohibit the locking of stair doors entirely.


Even if stair doors are locked, intruders can enter the stairway on a non-secured floor and linger within the stairway on an upper floor for an extended period. These intruders could be homeless people looking for a place to sleep, a drug user looking for a place to consume narcotics, or an attacker looking for someone to assault.


The floor that separates the non-secured floors from the secured floors typically occurs at the floor that exits out to the street. This floor is known as the "discharge floor". The most traditional design of stairways at the discharge floor is shown in the drawing below. This design provides no security separation and creates the security vulnerabilities discussed above.


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The best remedy to this problem is to provide physical separation within the stairway between the non-secured floors and the secured floors. This separation should allow people to come up from the unsecured floors to exit, come down from the secured floors to exit, but not allow free travel from the unsecured floors to the secured floors within the stairway.


There are three commonly used options to provide stairway separation. These options are shown below.


Option #1 - Dual Stairway Design

The first option is to provide two completely separate stairways, one that comes up from the floors below, and another that comes down from the floors above. This option provides excellent security separation, but takes up additional room that may reduce available floor space in the building.

Option #2 - Split Stairway Design

The second option is to provide a single stairway that is physically separated at the discharge floor, typically by using an internal separation wall. If designed correctly, this option provides the same amount of security that the dual stairway design does, but takes up less overall floor space.

Option #3 - Stairway Design with Door or Gate

The third option is to provide a single stairway that has an internal door or gate within the stairway. People coming down the down the stairway can freely exit, but people wishing to go up the stairway from the discharge floor must use a key or card to open the locked or or gate.


This option is the only one of the three that can be added to an existing stairway at a building that is already constructed. When adding to an existing stairway, care must be taken so that the door or gate does not obstruct the path of egress and that the minimum code-required clearance distances are maintained. Unfortunately, some existing stairways may simply not have enough space to accommodate the addition of a new door or gate.


Good security planning involves so much more than just deciding where the cameras and card readers should go. The architectural design of the building can have a great impact on security and a building that is designed incorrectly from a security standpoint can have lasting consequences.


When planning a new building, the design team should include a security professional who is well-versed in physical security and can provide expert guidance during the planning process.

If you have any questions concerning this article, or need help in assessing or planning security for your facility, please contact us.

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