The Codes Behind Access Control

By: Brian Rhodes, Published on Mar 27, 2013

In Electronic Access Control, there is one basic rule: Life safety above all else. While simple, this rule often appears to be at odds with the purpose of the system; keeping an area secure. When combined with the huge number of building opening possibilities, the basic rules quickly grow complex. Addressing the potential variations is the job of Codes, or 'design guidelines' adopted as law. In this note, we look at the major codes dictating access control work (including NFPA101, NFPA72, and IBC), discussing what these codes mean in practice, and how to best avoid issues when designing systems.

This reading has been updated in April 2016 to reflect updated code references.

The Major References

While a substantial number of codes are in use worldwide, most local authorities and municipal codes draw intent from a select two or three references. For access control, those references are:

  • NFPA101: The official 'Life Safety Code' is the most widely used source to protect people based on building construction, protection, and occupancy ratings.
  • NFPA72: Created for for Fire Alarms, this code is sometimes cited in electronic access control because of the special integration required between the door locks and the fire alarm system.
  • IBC: The International Building Code, as published by the International Code Council, is the essential guidebook for designing and engineering safe buildings. If not observed directly as the authority, then whatever resulting codes that do have authority take guidance from the source.

Because they are the highest default authorities, if no other codes are cited they become the defacto regulations governing access control in the US.

Not Everyone Agrees

Because many other codes, especially locally exempted or municipal codes, are ratified for use by AHJs, the first priority of an access control designer is to establish which authority to observe for a given project. While checking Jurisdictional Adoption is a critical first step, confirming the full scope of rules for access with the AHJ is the most important measure to take.

However, even if verbiage differs, the intent is the same: life safety must be preserved. In no circumstances, whether in normal operation, emergency condition, or even equipment malfunction, can a door prevent an occupant from escaping the premises. In most cases, free egress is preserved by the mechanical hardware configuration, but it cannot be hindered by the addition of electronic access. For every lock, there must be a mechanical or physical override. Because of this, exit devices and Request to Exit hardware are essential devices for most access systems.

Specific codes and regulations depend on 'occupancy rating' and what is permissible for one type may be illegal in another. In many cases 'one size does not fit all', and each project and system may vary depending on the facility's occupancy use classification.

Because occupancy classifications determine how codes define access, the end result to the uninformed designer or installer can appear to be akin to 'hitting a moving target'. For example, a maglock controlled exit may be permissible in one building type, but forbidden in another. Emergency Exits may be able to access controlled in one occupancy, but not in other.

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Door Function Important

Aside from building classifications, the function of a controlled opening is also an important consideration. The types of doors below have special considerations when installed as part of access systems:

  • Fire Doors: The openings are more than just secured openings; they provide an integral safety function to limit risk in a fire condition. Because of this function, and their special construction, fire doors must be positively latched in a fire and cannot be cut or modified for hardware.
  • Stairwell Doors: Usually stairwell doors are locked, to prevent unauthorized access during normal conditions, but in a fire these locks must be dropped so an occupant fleeing a fire cannot be trapped in a stairwell. For this reason, access controlled stairwell doors are especially configured in typical use.
  • "Nanny" and Delayed Egress Doors: Other systems that momentarily 'lock inhabitants in' are subject to special authority, and the full scope of operation is typically governed by code, from how long a 'delay period' can be (15 or 30 seconds?) or which doors can be kept closed to prevent unauthorized exit (ie: nursing home facilities).

Reconciling the security plan with the floorplan and facility occupancy code is vital, and clearly establishing what controls are permissible on which doors must be done up front, before any installation work commences.

Detailed Passages

Included below are specific citations that are commonly cited in access control use:

Ultimately, other sources may be applicable for access control systems, including legacy BOCA, ADA, and Government Department Codes.

16 reports cite this report:

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While locks can look the same, they may operate in significantly different ways. To make understanding them simpler, widely adopted industry...
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Brivo has a new marketing campaign running across the web: Are you ready to buy access control now? Brivo tells IPVM this is a new campaign,...
Top Maglock Provider Warns Against Using Maglocks on Nov 21, 2017
Do not buy my company's product. It sounds strange indeed, but a senior Allegion consultant stated that maglocks should not be used in common...
Multipoint Lock Access Control Tutorial on Oct 17, 2017
Doors are notoriously weak at stopping entry, and money can be misspent on wrong locks that leave doors quite vulnerable. While closed and locked...
Delayed Egress Access Control Tutorial on Oct 04, 2017
Is it ever legal to lock people into a building? The answer is: Yes... under specific situations. With so much of access control driven by life...
Dahua and Hikvision Entering Access Control on Sep 05, 2017
Until now, Chinese video giants Hikvision and Dahua have held back releasing access internationally. Both companies have now pulled the trigger,...
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Banned: Classroom Barricade Locks on Apr 14, 2016
In this age of classroom shootings, many are looking for barricade locks - a cheap and easy stopgap to bolster door security.   Critics condemn...
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