Fire Exits: Everything You Need to Know

Fire Safety By Matthew Coombes

What is a fire exit?

A fire exit is a door which leads to the outdoors or a place of absolute safety, that can be used in the event of a fire. They provide a valuable means of escape and are typically planned to be additional to any regularly used doorways.

The size, amount and location of fire exits will depend on the structure of the building and it’s use along with any other relevant factors.

The purpose of the building

It’s not just the size of the building that is important in assessing how many fire exits are required, the purpose of the building is key too.

For example, a library and a nightclub could have the same square footage, but the purpose of the building is different – you would expect to find more people in a nightclub than a library, so the expected maximum and regular occupancy is increased. This would mean that a nightclub may need more fire exits.

Furthermore, the nature of a night club is that it often includes purchasing alcohol, which means anyone on site may be drunk, slower to react to a fire and potentially unable to get themselves to a place of safety and therefore are at increased risk. More fire exits may be required to ensure that they are easy to locate, access and pass through.

RRFSO Article 14 Section 2 (c) “the number, distribution and dimensions of emergency routes and exits must be adequate having regard to the use, equipment and dimensions of the premises and the maximum number of persons who may be present there at any one time;”

When an existing building is repurposed, a consideration for the use of the building is essential because additional means of escape may be required if the expected number of people using the building increases when compared to its original purpose.

There is also specific legislation which applies to when a building is built or repurposed. Considerations for fire safety and accessibility need to be made, and changes to the building may need to be implemented in accordance with the Regulatory Reform Fire Safety Order (2005), The Equality Act (2010) and The Building Regulations (2010).

Maximum number of people Minimum width (mm)
60 750
110 850
220 1050
More than 220 5mm per person


Widths may need to be increased to meet guidance in Approved Document M – Access to and use of buildings
Widths less than 1050mm should not be inserted between 850mm and 1050mm

5 things you MUST do with fire escapes

1. Keep them unlocked

A common problem that many businesses may encounter with poorly located or poorly designed fire escapes is criminals using them as a means to gain access to the building out of hours. Criminals may be legally able to enter your site and could leave a fire exit open during your normal opening hours, then return later and let themselves in. The doors could also provide a ‘weak point’ in a brick wall which is able to be levered open or taken off entirely.

Some retail organisations will have a lock-up procedure that includes locking fire escapes once all customers have left, and the staff are preparing to leave.

However, this is no excuse to lock the fire escape while the building is in use. The last thing that you want to encounter when trying to evacuate from a fire is using a fire escape that is locked.

The image on the right of this text includes a “panic bolt” which is a glass tube that can be broken to allow the locked door to be opened. However, they have not included signage to say how to open the door, which would be crucial in an emergency situation.
RRFSO Article 14 Section 2 – (f) “emergency doors must not be so locked or fastened that they cannot be easily and immediately opened by any person who may require to use them in an emergency;”

2. Keep them unblocked

Ensuring that a fire escape is able to be reached and opened in the event of a fire is essential, and means of escape should be considered for their suitability based on the ability of all potential users. Would a child be able to reach and open your fire escape if they needed to? Would a person who uses mobility aides such as a wheelchair be able to open the door and get through it quickly?

A common reason that fire escapes can become blocked is when there is a quick or large influx in stock of any kind. It may be perceived that there is nowhere else for the stock to go, and that the ‘fire escape isn’t used anyway’, so the stock will find itself in front of or on the path to the fire escape.

This can create a significant obstacle for anyone that needs to use the fire escape in the event of a fire.

In the picture to the right of this text, the door in the foreground would typically be closed. This means that you would only find the fire escape blocked, once you had reached it. There were only two fire escapes in this building, so if you chose the wrong one, or the other was blocked by fire, you may be unable to leave the building quickly, or leave the building at all.

RRFSO Article 14 Section 2 – (b) “in the event of danger, it must be possible for persons to evacuate the premises as quickly and safely as possible;”

3. Know where they are

Being told:
When I recently visited the University of Worcester’s Arena to watch East London Phoenix vs Worcester Wolves in the professional women’s basketball league (GO Phoenix!), I was very pleased to hear the announcer prefix the game with a safety briefing which included pointing out the nearest fire escapes, much like you would have on an aeroplane.

Providing this type of information can be crucial to improving chances of escape during a fire, as when we are in a life-or-death situation, our body and mind will enter ‘fight, flight or freeze’. Telling people where the fire escapes are, will encourage them to look at them, and in an emergency situation their subconscious brain will recall this and already know where the exit is, making it far easier to get to safety even if the situation becomes confusing, dangerous or a panic breaks out.

Locate them yourself:
When visiting an unfamiliar environment, such as a hotel, sporting event, nightclub, library, restaurant etc, it is always a good idea to locate the fire exits or route to the fire exits ahead of time. This saves time in the event of an emergency and as mentioned above, helps you to mentally prepare to use them.

4. Ensure that they are visible:

Similarly, the visibility of your fire escapes and any fire escape signage on the route to final safety is essential.

As you’re moving around a building, the brain is surprisingly fast to forget information that it doesn’t think that it will need. This includes forgetting which door you came through, which way to turn at each corridor and which of the three identical looking doors leads to safety. In addition to this, working in ‘a room within a room’ may increase your risk in the event of a fire, as you may have an increased distance between you and safety, you may be further away from alarm sounders and unable to hear them, and people may forget that you’re on site.

As such, clear and visible fire escape signage is an essential part of reaching final exit quickly and safely.

  • Signage – Clear, pointing/leading in the direction of safety, (in the UK) in line with British Standard 5499.
  • Line of sight – There should be a clear line of sight between you and signage informing you of the direction of exit where appropriate, such as signage consistently along corridors so that you can see the way to safety from a distance, or after leaving a room.
  • Darkness – If the building is used in periods of darkness, such as for 24/7 work, nightshifts, or during the winter when daylight hours are reduced. Signage should still be able to be viewed easily. This will typically mean the use of photoluminescent (glow in the dark) fire signs, and provision of emergency lighting.
  • Obscuring factors – Smoke is made up of hot particles of carbon and other by-products of fire such as toxic gas. In the event of a fire the hot smoke will begin to expand and this will mean that it will travel across or around the building. By its very nature it obscures light sources, stings your eyes and can reduce the oxygen available to you in a room making you lightheaded and dizzy. This can make it very hard to locate fire signage.
    It is becoming more common for organisations to provide additional signage or a trail of guiding lights that lead to the final exit lower down where they can be seen below the smoke line.

Can you see the fire exit sign from where you are now?

RRFSO Article 14 Section 2 – (g) “emergency routes and exits must be indicated by signs;”

5. Keep them well lit

Emergency lighting is a separate system of lighting to your regular building lighting, which activates in the event of a power cut or alongside the alarm system’s activation. Emergency lighting is operated by large batteries designed to stay on for a long period of time (typically 24 hours) in the event of a fire.

Emergency lights are found around key walkways, fire doors and fire exits and are designed to provide lighting in the event of a power cut, power failure or alarm during a fire. Any emergency lighting should be tested for faults for a short amount of time every month, and tested by a competent professional for a full duration appropriate to the size and type of batteries (typically 3 hours) every 6 months.

RRFSO Article 14 Section 2 – (h) emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity in the case of failure of their normal lighting.”

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