The overused understatement of the decade is, “This is an unprecedented time.” While the coronavirus outbreak has turned our lives into something none of us likely ever imagined, one fundamental life safety truth remains: THERE IS NO JUSTIFIABLE REASON FOR LOCKING EGRESS DOORS OR OTHERWISE COMPROMISING MEANS OF EGRESS IN OCCUPIED BUSINESSES.
We have seen some pretty extraordinary things with respect to application of the Life Safety Code over the last month or so, including the conversion of convention centers and dormitories into makeshift hospitals. These conversions have required health care providers and authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) to creatively apply the goals and objectives of the Code to these facilities while not meeting the precise, prescriptive requirements. In some cases, the rules have needed to bend in order to achieve the necessary goal of saving as many patients’ lives as possible. This is perfectly justifiable.
While many businesses have been forced to close to minimize the spread of the virus, others have been deemed ‘essential’ by state governments and continue to provide needed services. In many areas, these include grocery stores, building supply/hardware stores, and restaurants for take-out/delivery. For these operating businesses, the importance of social distancing is recognized and the way we shop for groceries and other items probably looks a bit different than it did a month ago. In the area where I live, stores have adopted practices whereby the number of shoppers permitted in the store is limited to avoid crowding; aisles have been designated as one-way to reduce the occurrence of shoppers passing one another in close proximity; at the checkout lines, marks on the floor indicate where to stand to maintain a distance of 6 ft from other customers. These are all reasonable precautions to help keep staff and customers healthy and they have no adverse impact on fire and life safety.
On the other hand, NFPA has also been made aware of some businesses locking egress doors and blocking exit access paths to control access and the flow of customers through the store. This might be well intended to enhance social distancing, but it could be extremely dangerous in the event of a fire or similar emergency requiring the evacuation of occupants. The current health emergency might justify turning an exhibit hall into a field hospital without meeting all the prescriptive Code requirements for a health care occupancy, but it does not justify compromising means of egress from a grocery store, big box store, or fast food restaurant. A fundamental tenet of life safety from fire is means of egress must be available to building occupants whenever the building is occupied. If a fast food restaurant is open for drive-thru pickup only, the egress doors must be openable from the inside by the workers without requiring the use of a key, tool, or special knowledge via one latch/lock releasing motion (e.g., depressing a panic bar or lever release). If a door can’t be locked from the outside and remain operable from the inside, the door must remain unlocked; a sign on the door indicating drive-through service only is available will have to suffice. The same goes for entrances to grocery stores; if only one entrance is to be used to control access, other entrances serving as required means of egress must remain unlocked. Signage or staff can be utilized to direct shoppers to the queue at the designated entry point. Likewise, aisles are required egress paths and must not be blocked. Floor markings, signs, and staff can all be used to direct the flow of customers while leaving the aisles accessible in and emergency.
Too many people have died in fires over the years due to compromised means of egress. The situation we, including first responders, currently face is difficult enough. Let’s not make it any worse by creating situations having the potential to lead to a large loss-of-life fire. With a little creativity, employees and customers can be kept safe from both the coronavirus and fire.
Did you know NFPA 101 is available to review online for free? Head over to www.nfpa.org/101 and click on “FREE ACCESS.” NFPA has also provided a wide range of resources that support fully operational fire and life safety systems, while balancing the realities of the current pandemic. Our goal is to support you and your work during this difficult time. How are we doing? How else can we help? Take our short survey and tell us what you think.
Thanks for reading. Stay safe and healthy. Follow me on Twitter: @NFPAGregH