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Safeguarding Life and Property: The Dangers of Exit Device and Fire Door Modifications

In high-occupancy buildings, life safety doors and door hardware are some of those architectural features that the untrained eye would never take a second look at. They are simply part of the building. Fire-rated doors with life safety features are the unsung heroes of fire prevention, protecting lives and property by containing fires and smoke in emergency situations.

If they are malfunctioning or modified, these exit devices’ purposes can be undermined, and the consequences can be fatal.

The Role of Fire Doors

The primary function of fire-rated doors is to prevent the spread of fire, smoke, and toxic gases while providing occupants with a safe means of escape in the event of a fire. Adhering to fire codes and regulations is essential to the performance of the doors’ life-saving functions.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) stipulates that a fire door must be able to open, close, and latch securely. These doors can either be kept closed and always latched or engineered to automatically close in the event of a fire. Any modification that forces a fire door into an open position or prevents it from latching violates fire codes and poses a significant threat to life safety.

An NFPA study from 2021 revealed that of the 125,500 fires in the United States reported in non-residential structures, which require fire doors, 3 percent resulted in fatalities and 7 percent caused civilian injuries. Apartment fires, which are tallied separately, showed even higher stakes, with 7 percent of the 81,500 multifamily fires resulting in fatalities and 21 percent causing injuries. These relatively low numbers are a testament to the effectiveness of fire doors in minimizing casualties during fires, although regulations on whether apartment buildings install fire doors vary from state to state.

Modifications by the Unaware

In many cases, the modifications made to exit devices and fire doors are done by building occupants who may not fully understand the consequences of their actions. These modifications are typically made for more convenient push/pull operation, noise reduction, lock bypassing, or increasing ventilation and airflow to a space. Unfortunately, these seemingly innocuous alterations to standard fire-rated doors can have severe repercussions when it comes to life safety.

Propped open doors. One of the most common and hazardous modifications involves propping open fire doors using door wedges, kick stops, chains, or heavy objects. These actions violate fire codes because they prevent the door from closing during an emergency.

While occupants may believe that propping open a fire door for convenience is harmless, the reality is far from it. For instance, staff members in a healthcare facility might prioritize easy access to a supply closet with a fire-rated door and choose to prop it open. But in a fire emergency, the chemicals, cleaning supplies, towels, and other highly flammable items in a supply closet could pose a greater—or even explosive—threat to building occupants if the door is propped open when a fire starts. It’s unlikely that staff and patients trying to flee or help others will then remember to close the door.

Disabling exit devices. Another significant threat to life safety arises when occupants disable exit devices—otherwise known as crash bars or panic bars—so they don’t latch. Duct tape and zip ties are often used to immobilize the exit device push bar, rendering it ineffective in performing its critical function of securing the door.

This act of improvised dogging (where the push bar is pulled in and held with tape, zip ties, or other measures so the latch doesn’t engage) is problematic even if the door is not propped open. Building fires generate pressures that can force fire doors open if they are not securely latched. Dogging a door would mean that in the event of a fire, the failure to latch properly would render the doors incapable of containing fire and smoke, putting lives at risk.

Modifications to the door itself. Adjustments like trimming a door to fit the door frame more easily must be made in compliance with the manufacturer’s strict guidelines. This both preserves the opening’s performance and maintains the life safety features.

The same compliance applies to cutting holes in the door, which, if done without sufficient care or knowledge, can eliminate the fire rating. This includes installing a window, upgrading to electromechanical products, or adding electronic access control products that require a deadbolt where there wasn't one before. Facility owners must consult security professionals who can source certified materials and monitor the project to ensure that the level of security and code compliance are not compromised.

Solutions for Promoting Life Safety

Fortunately, there are several effective solutions to avoid these non-compliant modifications while ensuring life safety in high-occupancy buildings:

Magnetic hold opens. Magnetic hold opens are activated by alarms, releasing the door during an emergency to maintain life safety while still allowing easy egress. In life safety applications, magnetic door holders must be very reliable and are designed to be fail-safe, even during a power failure.

Electric dogging. While fire-rated doors are traditionally not allowed to have dogging, electric dogging can be a good option to keep the latch retracted during scheduled hours, ensuring ease of access while still latching in place if triggered by the fire system. This technology provides a balance between convenience and safety, while keeping your fire-rated openings code compliant.

Motorized latch retraction. Motorized or electric latch retraction mechanisms offer another solution. They can be controlled by an access control system that automatically retracts the latch when necessary. This functionality eliminates the need for occupants to use zip ties or duct tape to tamper with the device, offering the convenience of their desired level of access while maintaining compliance with codes.

Upgrade to next-generation exit devices. Outdated hardware is often an easy target for tampering. As old hardware loses functionality or becomes consistently modified, consider upgrading your exit devices to next-generation models. The newest innovations in exit devices put life safety as a top priority. These modern designs incorporate features that discourage user modifications and enhance overall safety.

These devices are now available with features like electric dogging and motorized latch retraction for maximum convenience, safety, and code compliance. Sometimes, next generation models are also engineered to have a smooth, flush surface that minimizes catchpoints. While this may seem like a largely cosmetic benefit, the flush push bar prevents clothing or bag straps from snagging as occupants exit the building. This feature also facilitates the quick and easy movement of safety personnel carrying equipment, such as packs and hoses.

The Importance of Stakeholder Education

While it is important to ensure that hardware is up to code, convenient, and functioning as intended, building owners and facility managers must also prioritize informed decision-making and awareness among staff and visitors. There are several initiatives that can support the education process of stakeholders.

Regular training. Conduct regular fire safety training sessions for building staff to ensure they understand the role exit devices play in the safety process and what to do if something malfunctions.

Visible signage. Place visible signs near fire doors that explain their purpose and the consequences of tampering with them.

Standard reporting practices. Establish a system for occupants to report any concerns or issues related to exit devices or the fire doors, including unauthorized modifications.

Alternative solutions. Offering alternative solutions for occupant concerns that do not compromise fire safety, such as noise reduction measures or improved ventilation systems.

Building owners, facility managers, and occupants must recognize the importance of preserving the integrity of fire doors and exit devices. By doing so, they can contribute to the safety of all building occupants and help prevent the consequences of fire-related emergencies. Life safety begins with the proper maintenance and use of fire doors and exit devices.


Mia Merrel is the director of product management for mechanical and electromechanical hardware for the brands Sargent, Corbin Russwin, and ASSA ABLOY ACCENTRA. With a background in product design engineering and 13 years of tenure with ASSA ABLOY, Merrel specializes in product strategy, development, and certification. She is the chair for the ANSI/BHMA A156.24 Delayed Egress standard and the founder and contributor of Door Hardware Nerds.