On October 16, 2003, a fire killed six people in the 12th floor supply room of the Cook County Administration Building in Chicago. The cause of the fire in the 37-story loop building remains under investigation, but several facts are undisputed:

  • All six victims died of smoke inhalation after being trapped in the upper floors of a stairwell behind doors that locked automatically.

  • Stairwell doors in the high rise were locked as a security measure.

  • Security measures conflicted with fire safety and evacuation plans.

  • Firefighters were delayed in gaining access to all floors.

    building’s 2,500 government workers called for an evacuation of the upper floors. This evacuation was initially described as smooth and orderly, but by the time the descending occupants reached the 12th floor, they encountered thick, black smoke, as well as a stream of occupants heading up the stairwell. But because all stairwell doors were locked on the stairwell side as a security measure, no one could re-enter a higher floor. Survivors reported that in the time it took them to climb back up to a higher floor, they were overcome by the smoke. Some survivors safely reached and were eventually rescued from a floor unaffected by the fire, but it was too late for the six people who died of smoke inhalation in the stairwell.

    Safe solutions needed

    Although this could be described as only one incident, there is no denying that safe solutions are paramount to ensure occupant safety in any fire. As the tragic high rise fire in Chicago demonstrates, something as simple as an unlocked door or a locking system that automatically opens in an emergency could have prevented the deaths. However, high rise buildings built before 1975, including the Cook County Administration Building, were not required to comply with many current codes; specifically, they are exempt from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) codes that mandate newer, more practical solutions to reduce the burden of fire and fire-related hazards.

    According to current NFPA codes on stairwell locking systems, “Every stair enclosure door shall allow re-entry from the stair enclosure to the interior of the building, or an automatic release shall be provided to unlock all stair enclosure doors to allow re-entry. Such automatic release shall be activated with the initiation of the building fire alarm system.”

    The Chicago ordinance

    Code officials and design professionals are becoming increasingly aware of the lethal potential of older buildings that do not comply with the solutions currently outlined by the NFPA. Three weeks after the Chicago fire, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that relied heavily on NFPA codes, thus eliminating the exemption and immediately impacting every high rise within the city limits.

    The City of Chicago ordinance requires every high rise stairwell enclosure that serves more than four stories to comply with one of two minimum standards by Jan. 1, 2005:

    • Unlock the doors – The stairwell enclosure doors cannot be locked from the stairwell side at any time in order to provide re-entry from the stairwell enclosure to the interior of the building; or

    • Automatic unlocking – The stairwell enclosure doors must be equipped with a fail-safe electronic lock release system that is activated both manually (by a single switch accessible to building management and emergency personnel) and automatically (by approved smoke detectors connected to a communications panel).

      In the interim, the city ordinance also requires the following measures for high rise buildings:

    • Stairwell doors can only be locked on every fourth level.

    • Re-entry to the building interior must be possible at all times on the highest story or the second highest story, whichever allows access to another exit stair.

    • Doors allowing re-entry must be identified on the stair side of the door.

    • Doors not allowing re-entry must include signage on the stair side indicating the location of the nearest door, in each direction of travel, which allows re-entry or exit.

    These conditions are part of the newest version of NFPA-101 and indicate how the codes have evolved since 1975. By adopting this ordinance, the City of Chicago is basically trying to comply with today’s code. The ordinance, as written, however, will cost high rise building owners and managers thousands of dollars to comply.

    Door hardware solutions

    The door hardware industry offers several solutions to code requirements, ranging from basic to complex:

    • Simple passage set – Passage set hardware is always unlocked, much like common hardware devices found throughout any office buildings. These sets cannot be locked and serve only to latch the door.

    • Electric locking devices – These fail-safe locking devices are designed to release automatically when the building alarm system is activated in an emergency. In addition, the devices include a manual release at the building’s central fire panel. Electric locking devices include mortise locks, cylindrical locks and exit devices.

    • Electromagnetic lock – Although the Chicago ordinance specifically prohibits electromagnetic locks as an option, this fail-safe locking device is made up of an electromagnet on the doorframe and an armature plate on the door. When power is applied to the electromagnet, the device’s magnet keeps the door locked. In the event of an emergency, the central fire panel deactivates the magnet, allowing the door to be opened. Electromagnetic locking devices provide a good solution in existing buildings because of their ease of installation, and cities elsewhere in the country consider the devices as a viable option.

    The balance between safety and security is a primary concern of building owners and tenants, who often require tight defense. However, security issues must be balanced against occupant safety and the ability to gain quick access to safe floors in the event of a high rise emergency. Cost, of course, enters as a key concern for building owners and managers. But while more money may translate into higher security, it doesn’t necessarily increase safety. The goal is to develop an approach that keeps safety constant – and within local codes – while outfitting stairwell doors with devices that ensure the desired degree of building security.

    As the Chicago fire illustrated, the issue before communities, building owners and managers, security operators and the manufacturers of security equipment is mandating if, when and how buildings should be required to comply with current codes. This should be a multi-year approach that considers rational solutions and recognizes the costs and time required to ensure a safe and secure building. By adopting a multi-year approach that outlines a clear path towards a workable solution, buildings will become safer and more secure each year.

    In the case of the Chicago fire, as well as other cities grappling with this issue, the ultimate solution is to abide by the correct local codes. The mandates from the Chicago City Council are likely to serve as a wake-up call to every city in the country with high rise buildings. Hopefully, local governments from New York to Los Angeles and beyond can find a balance.