Exit Devices, Panic Bars and Crash Bars: What's in a Name?

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An exit device – sometimes called a Panic Device or a Crash Bar – is mechanical door hardware operated from the inside of an outswing exit door through the use of a crossbar or push rail and extends at least halfway across its width. According to life safety code, an exit device must always release the door without prior knowledge of how to operate the device. Any horizontal force on the cross bar or push rail will release the door.

The names panic bar and crash bar were coined to indicate the way people when panicked in a mass evacuation due to emergency crashed into the doors in order to exit.

In any building area or room where many people may be gathered, code requirements dictate that safe and easy egress must always be possible. The doors in these areas must always swing out in the direction of people exiting the building in case of emergency and must always be free to operate from the inside of the area, yet they may be locked to prevent access from the outside.

The History of Exit Devices

  • In1903, 602 people lost their lives in the Iroquois theater fire in Chicago because iron gates blocked exits(1)
  • In1908, 174 children died in the Collinwood school fire in Cleveland (2)
  • In1911, 148 girls perished when fire swept through Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York (3)

These figures represent only some of the massive loss of life due to fire in the first half of the 20th century. In many of these cases, many people were crushed to death in the panic that resulted as they frantically tried to get out of buildings. In some cases, there were not enough doors; sometimes doors were locked and sometimes, doors that opened inward were blocked because of a surge of people.

In the 1911 shirt factory fire, the owner and operator of the building was arrested, put on trial and convicted for not providing adequate protection for his employees. He was heavily fined and sent to prison. His defense was that there were no laws defining the degree of protection he had to provide for his workers, but he was found guilty nonetheless.

As a result, the first exit device was developed in 1911 and the first building codes that required improved safety measures came into existence by 1913. The requirement for safe egress from buildings remains a fundamental concept of today's codes.

Where are exit devices required?

Local building codes govern where exit devices must be used.

The rules that identify what types of buildings must use exit devices come from the International Building Code® – a model code developed by the International Code Council® and revised every three years.

The Building Code is then made law in state and local jurisdictions along with any local amendments they choose to include. The code will dictate not only when and where an exit device must be used but also whether additional locks are allowed or not on the opening.

Always be aware of, and follow, local codes that apply to the building you are working on.

Is there a difference between "panic" and "fire exit" hardware?

The code specifically differentiates between panic hardware and fire exit hardware, with the difference being the ability to 'dog' or hold the latch retracted on panic hardware. Typically located on exterior, non-fire rated openings, panic hardware can be dogged to minimize the wear and sound that comes with with frequent latching and unlatching during daily use.

When the code requires a fire rated opening and an exit device, fire exit hardware must be installed ensuring the fire door always latches when it closes. The code requires devices listed as fire exit hardware to have passed the requirements of UL 10C Standard for Safety Positive Pressure Fire Tests of Door Assemblies.

The code also requires both panic and fire exit hardware be listed to UL 305 Standard for Safety – Panic Hardware. Working with experienced specification consultants will ensure the devices specified for your project are properly listed with UL or Warnock-Hersey for their intended application.

Sources:

(1) https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/NFPA-Journal/2015/July-August-2015/News-and-Analysis/Looking-Back

(2) http://collinwoodfire.org/collinwood-fire-1908/

(3) https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/triangle-shirtwaist-fire