Fire exits: a guide for businesses

fire-exitSafelincs operates a fire safety forum where people’s fire safety questions are answered by professionals. We followed the numerous queries regarding fire exits in businesses and have created a list of the main concerns that were raised and answered:

Just for clarification – What do we mean with fire exit (doors) in this article?

Mostly, this terms refers to final fire exit (doors) leading to the outside of a building, although the term is also correctly used for all doors inside the building on routes that are leading to the final fire exit. In this article we refer to FINAL fire exits when we mention fire exits or fire exit doors.

Any door leading to the outside is potentially a fire exit, including your normal entrance

In the event of a fire it must be possible for staff and visitors to evacuate your premises as quickly and as safely as possible. This is often through the door by which your staff or the public entered. However, additional fire exits will often be installed to reduce the escape distance or to provide an alternative exit in case the main entry/exit is blocked by fire. Sliding or revolving doors must not be used for exits specifically intended to be used as fire exits. Doors leading to enclosed courtyards might also not be suitable as fire exits.

Final Fire exit doors can be left open

Security may of course be a separate issue, but it is completely acceptable to have final fire exit doors standing open on, for example, hot days. The only time that this should not happen is if the final fire escape door is also acting as a fire resistant door – although this would be very rare. The issue of fire exit doors left standing open is getting regularly confused with the issue of internal fire doors which must be kept shut.

Fire exits must be easily openable from inside the building

Fire exit doors must not be locked or fastened in a way preventing them being easily and immediately opened by any person who may use them in an emergency. There are a variety of ways to secure fire exit doors in a way that allows easy opening by anybody from the inside in the case of an emergency:
Panic bars (also called push bars or crash bars) are used where large numbers of people are attempting to travel at speed through a fire exit, as minimal pressure on the bar releases the locking mechanism.
Emergency push pads are similar to push bars but feature a small pad as opposed to a horizontal bar. They should only be used where a panic situation is unlikely to arise in an emergency evacuation scenario e.g. when only staff familiar with the building and not members of the general public are using the exit.
• The Redlam emergency bolt (often wrongly called Redlam panic bolt) is designed for emergency doors which are not in normal everyday use and should only be opened for maintenance and testing. The bolt is NOT suitable for public areas.
• The Kingpin emergency bolt is similar to the Redlam bolt; when the handle is pulled, the Kingpin breaks into two pieces, allowing the spring-loaded bolt to retract and thus release the door. The door can, at all times, be used for non-emergency purposes by a key holder. Again, this bolt is not suitable for areas used by the general public.
• A maglock (short for magnetic lock) holds the door shut using an electromagnetic force between a magnet and a steel plate. Typically they can have a keypad for access from outside and a green quick release button inside for use in an emergency. These systems can be wired into alarm systems that automatically release if the fire alarm system activates or the power supply fails.

Fire exit doors must not be locked whilst a building is in use

However, when a building is unoccupied it can be locked as securely as required. If dramatic security measures like chains, padlocks or steel bars are required, the first person entering the building in the morning must remove all of these. It is generally recommended to create a wall mounted board in the entrance area with the shapes of the security devices (eg padlock) used painted red on which the removed padlocks etc are then hung. This is a visual aid to stop staff forgetting that doors are still locked. Forgetting to unlock security devices could lead to severe prosecution. We would therefore recommend to only use proper panic bars etc. These can offer excellent security and allow safe escape in case of an emergency.

Fire exit doors can be any colour

The important thing is that the exit doors are clearly signed.

Fire exit doors should open in the direction of escape

However, in the workplace it may be permissible to have an exit door opening inwards if it is providing excess for less than 60 staff without public access.

The more people use a building the greater the number of fire exits required

The minimum width for a fire escape catering for 60 people or less is 750mm. For full details of width requirements versus number of users and for the number of exits required, the Building Regulations area of the UK Government’s Planning Portal should be consulted. (Approved Document B – Fire Safety) http://www.planningportal.gov.uk/uploads/br/BR_PDF_AD_B2_2007.pdf . See also our full help guide

Emergency routes and fire exits must be indicated by signs

Fire exit routes need to be marked clearly with emergency exit signs and have to be sufficiently lit, even when the electric power supply has failed. Therefore emergency routes and fire exits usually require emergency lighting of adequate intensity in the case of failure of the normal lighting. Final fire exits signs can be illuminated themselves or externally lit by an emergency light.

Emergency routes and fire exits must be kept clear of obstruction

Final fire exit doors should never be blocked from the inside or outside. Equally, the internal escape routes must not be blocked. Items that are a source of fuel, pose an ignition risk, or are combustible and likely to increase the fire loading or spread of fire, should not be located on any corridor, stairway or circulation space that will be used as an escape route. Such items include portable heaters, (bottled gas or electric radiant heaters), gas cylinders, etc.

If the fire exit leads onto a road or car park a sign is needed to say ‘No Parking’
If possible a barrier could also be put in place.

Difference between fire doors and fire exits

The issue of fire doors and fire exits can be confusing for non-professionals in fire safety. If you have to replace some of the doors in your premises with fire doors or you have to improve egress from a building with panic bars on fire exits, it will be helpful to have a clear understanding of the differences between fire doors and fire exits.

A fire door is an internal door, whose purpose is to i) create/protect an escape route through a building in a fire situation; and ii) compartmentalise a fire, to stop flames and smoke spreading from one section of the building to another. Examples of locations of fire doors include stairwells, where they protect the stairs from corridors opening on to them; kitchens/catering facilities, storage areas that house combustible materials such as paper and card and boiler rooms.

Fire doors have to be kept close at all times unless certified fire door retainers are installed (not just a door wedge!) which hold the fire door open until a fire alarm is set off.

Certified fire doors of solid timber construction are designed to resist the smoke and flames of a fire for a minimum specified length of time, typically 30 minutes (FD30), when closed. Because a fire door is not simply a block of wood in a frame but an assembly of fire resistant parts – door leaf/leaves, doorframe, hardware (e.g. locks, latches, hinges, etc), any glazing, smoke/intumescent seals and an automatic closing device – it is also known as a fire doorset.

A fire exit door on the other hand, is an external door; it can be left open and does not have to be fire resistant. The purpose of the fire exit door is to allow a quick and un-hindered escape through a well lit door into a place of safety while stopping un-authorised access from the outside. Fire exits doors should open easily and, wherever possible, in the direction of traffic flow. If it is a security door that is usually kept locked but will be used by members of the public in an emergency situation, it will have to be fitted with a panic or push bar. By enabling the swift passage of people to a place of safety, the final exit door will have performed its function; it does not have to be a fire door to accomplish this. Fire exit doors can also be opened from the outside if for example a panic bar with a keylock override is fitted. Fire exits must never be obstructed and have to be clearly marked and well lit. Best practice dictates that fire exit signs are fitted above fire exits.