Why are all but the basement doors locked in the stairwell where I work?
November 1, 2007 9:35 PM   Subscribe

Why are all but the basement doors locked in the stairwell where I work?

The building I work in has 30-40 floors. I work on the 23rd. I needed to go to the 22nd, so I decided to take the stairs. The thing is, when I entered the stairwell, the door behind me locked, and next to it read a sign that *all* doors are locked except the basement. So, I had to walk down 22 stories of stairs, then take the elevator up to the 22nd.

Apparently, this policy is quite common.

Googling this returned a bunch of hits of people who might have died in fires because of this. I know it's not a security issue because I can take the elevator to any floor. It seems like someone could get trapped in the stairwell and die from smoke inhalation from a fire a few floors below.

I didn't see any answers that made any sense on the internet. Am I missing something obvious?
posted by boeing82 to Grab Bag (9 answers total)
Is it a multi-tenet office building? Presumablly the stairwell door open up behind any "checkpoint" or front desk that is in the lobby of each of the floors.

They could also be too cheap to put in card readers in the stairwells.

Lastly it could be a way of making sure that evacuating people actually get to the bottom of the building rather than land on some random floor (Not an entirely a random possibility when you consider the case of smoke and darkness and the chaos of a real evacuation).
posted by mmascolino at 9:49 PM on November 1, 2007

Each floor has the same layout, in terms of hallways. Each floor's door opens into a hallway, off of which are the offices. None of the doors opens directly into an office.

The card readers idea would make sense if the doors did in fact open directly into offices, but since they don't, it seems silly to have them locked. Anyone can access any floor by way of the elevator.
posted by boeing82 at 10:21 PM on November 1, 2007

I found this summary of the Massachusetts implementation of the national model fire code (your municipality probably has something very similar but not necessarily exactly, depending on when it was updated):

Stairwell Reentry
* Every stair enclosure door shall permit reentry to the interior of the building, or an automatic release shall be provided to unlock all stair doors simultaneously upon initiation of the building fire alarm system
* Selected doors shall be permitted to have locking hardware provided that
-- at least 2 levels are unlocked
-- there aren't more than 4 stories between unlocked floors
-- the top or next to the top floor is unlocked
-- signage on the stair side identifies unlocked doors
-- signage on the stair side of locked doors indicates the location of nearest unlocked door in each direction
* Stairs serving less than 4 stories do not need to comply
* Compliance is not required where specifically stated by NFPA 101

Part of the issue is that fire stairs are required to be there, but using them is not necessarily recommended. Buildings above a certain height are presumed built to a "firefighting in place" standard, where each floor sufficiently isolates most fires that the majority of the building does not need to evacuate, only the affected floor.

There was a case in Chicago where a county building had a fire and confusion about evacuation got six people killed in a stairwell. A modern building to the same spec would have had the automatic release, but those were not required in the 1960s or 70s when it was built. A fire a year later had no casualties, although some who entered a stairwell were forced to return upstairs due to smoke. Later they evacuated under the supervision of fire personnel.

I know it's not a security issue

It actually is a security issue. By having all the doors openable someone could escape a security situation by reentering the building at any floor. An elevator could be shut down. Then you only have the bottom doors to watch.

Buildings in large cities can have problems with people (authorized to be in the building or not) roving around and stealing purses or laptops, and without a good perimeter it can be really difficult to catch them.
posted by dhartung at 10:51 PM on November 1, 2007

"I know it's not a security issue because I can take the elevator to any floor."

Like dhartung said it makes it easy for security to lock down the building or monitor comings and goings. Do you have night watchmen or a guard/doorman/cameras in the lobby? His job is a lot easier if the only access is the elevator bank.
posted by Mitheral at 2:27 AM on November 2, 2007

We have a similar setup in the 5 story hospital where I work for security reasons as described above. The stairs are mainly thought of as fire escapes rather than actual tranportation routes.
posted by TedW at 4:24 AM on November 2, 2007

In some buildings, even entering the stairwell by opening the door will set off the fire alarm, or at least signal the security desk.
posted by beagle at 5:38 AM on November 2, 2007

In addition to the security reasons mentioned above, many buildings discourage stair use because of the cost of cleaning and maintaining an actively-used staircase as well as the slightly higher risk of worker injury from using the stairs instead of an elevator.
posted by backupjesus at 6:15 AM on November 2, 2007

In some buildings, even entering the stairwell by opening the door will set off the fire alarm, or at least signal the security desk.

That is the setup in my building; we have to swipe our badges to use the stairs. Since it is a children's hospital they are pretty paranoid about possible abductions.
posted by TedW at 6:25 AM on November 2, 2007

Our building gives key cards to all the employees that allow you access to other floors. In case of fire, I'm not sure what your point is. Buildings are designed so that stairwells are actually the safest place to be in most circumstances, fires included. Our building has fire drills where you are supposed to use the stairs to exit as opposed to jumping out windows or using the elevator.

Your Google search gives strange results - might have died in fires? As opposed to what? Being stuck in an elevator when the power went out and actually dying in a fire? In any fire situation people will be exiting into the stairwell in droves so there will be plenty of opportunity to exit the stairwell if it is too smoky.
posted by JJ86 at 9:45 AM on November 2, 2007

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