Resolving the conflict between Security and Means of Egress requirements is critical in healthcare facilities. 

A man and operations managerBy Steven Dannaway, PE, DBIA – Security design is an important feature in healthcare facilities. It is common for hospital facilities to incorporate a security control system preventing unauthorized access into patient care and sleeping units, the emergency department, and operating/procedure room departments. Security requirements for a project present a unique challenge to the facility fire/life safety approach. The goals of a security system conflict with those of the means of the egress system. Security systems are intended to keep occupants out of particular areas of the building. Means of egress systems are designed to facilitate occupant access to a building’s exits and afford occupants with a path of travel to evacuate the building during an emergency.

Occupants in public areas are not able to freely access their required exits when the exits are located beyond the secure perimeter. In most situations, occupants in all areas of a story require access to at least two (2) means of egress. In only a limited number of situations are areas of a building allowed to only have access to a single exit.

A Common Misconception

There is a common misconception held by designers that the California Building Code (CBC) allows required egress doors to normally be locked and to only unlock upon activation of the fire alarm system in a fail-safe mode. This is incorrect, and the building code prohibits this arrangement in many situations. Exceptions to this rule are Group I-3 occupancies (detention and correctional occupancies), Group I-2 behavioral health units (psychiatric care). Otherwise, the prescriptive requirements of the building code specify that all parts of a story must have access to at least two (2) exits with access through normally unlocked doors or doors with delayed egress locking hardware. It is not a code-compliant solution to require the egress route to pass through normally locked doors that only unlock when the fire alarm system is activated.

The permissible arrangements for door locking and access control in the means of egress are critical for designers to understand. These requirements can impact the location and arrangement of exit stairways, the security boundary, and the relationship between public and secure patient areas within a facility.

Exit door at hospital

Delayed Egress Locking

Delayed egress locking hardware is a design solution; however, delayed egress doors cannot truly lock down a department. A delayed egress locking system includes hardware that will unlock after 15 seconds upon the occupant continuously applying a force to the door hardware. A local alarm is provided to signal staff in the department that the delayed egress device is being operated, allowing staff to respond to the area to verify whether an unauthorized person is trying to bypass the delayed egress door.

Issues with delayed egress doors include the following:

  • Delayed egress doors do not represent a true security control point because the door can be unlocked after 15 seconds.
  • When locked at the entrance to patient units, inadvertent operation of the delayed egress device can present a nuisance to hospital staff and patients. Continuous sounding of the local alarm may disrupt the patient experience in nearby patient rooms.
  • It is not uncommon for a facility to deactivate the delayed egress system after the nuisance of the system becomes tiresome, at which point the facility loses the security control that was originally desired.

Consider Security Needs Early in Design

It is important early in the design phases to consider the security needs of a facility, the operations and flow of occupants between public and secure spaces, and the means of egress requirements. When the security and egress approach is coordinated early, stairs and egress paths can be defined that provide occupants in the public zones with access to their required means of egress without passing through the patient care areas. This allows the patient care units to be locked down to meet the security goals of the Owner, while also achieving compliance with the egress requirements. Failure to define the security approach early adds risk into the design process, as the means of egress approach cannot be truly defined until the location of the security perimeter is known, and increases the risk of security/egress conflicts arising down the road.

Read more Engineering Insights for California Healthcare.