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I was at Costco today and saw an emergency exit that looked like this:

enter image description here

Why would an emergency exit legally be able to have a delay before opening? Being hurt in 15 seconds is very possible in an emergency situation (such as an earthquake causing pieces of the ceiling to fall, possibly blocking the exit while it's opening).

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    The delay is presumably for theft prevention. But building safety codes that allow such a delay will be very localized to city/county/state as well as corporate; where is this Costco located? – BlueDogRanch Feb 24 '17 at 19:02
  • I've seen them in multiple states (WA and ID). I believe the WA one was in Issaquah and the ID was in Coeur d'Alene. – Jon Feb 24 '17 at 20:05
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The Issaquah code does not appear to have any special requirements on emergency exits, so county codes would be operative. The relevant King county code is that:

16.10.100 Obstructing exits – General. Security methods shall not create a hazard to life by obstructing any means of egress or any opening which is classified as an emergency exiting facility. Security provisions shall not supersede the safety requirements relative to latching or locking devices on exit doors which would be contrary to the provisions of Chapter 10 of the Building Code nor shall the provisions of this chapter be construed to waive any other provisions of this code.

16.10.110 Obstructing exits – Emergency escape or rescue windows. Bars, grilles, grates or similar devices may be installed in an emergency escape or rescue windows or doors required by the Building Code, only if:

  1. The devices are equipped with approved release mechanisms which are openable from the inside without the use of a key or special knowledge or effort: and

  2. The building is equipped with smoke detectors installed in accordance with the Building Code. (Ord. 15802 § 100, 2007)

It is not clear if there is a public list of approved devices, though one may reasonably assume that the Costco device is approved.

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  • It seems the reference to "Building Code" should actually be to "Fire Code". I included the relevant section in my answer. – Nate Eldredge Jun 16 '19 at 14:52
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Washington's building codes can be found at https://apps.des.wa.gov/sbcc/Page.aspx?nid=14. They have adopted the 2015 International Fire Code (IFC) (with amendments that aren't relevant here).

IFC Chapter 10 discussess "Means of Egress". (Sorry for the slightly messed up formatting.) A Costco store seems to be a Group M building under Section 202. The doors you describe are referred to as "delayed egress locking systems" and are explicitly allowed, with the maximum delay specified as 15 seconds:

[BE]1010.1.9.7 Delayed egress.
       Delayed egress locking systems, shall be permitted to be installed
       on doors serving any occupancy except Group A, E and H in buildings
       that are equipped throughout with an automatic sprinkler system in
       accordance with [217]Section 903.3.1.1 or an approved automatic
       smoke or heat detection system installed in accordance with
       [218]Section 907. The locking system shall be installed and
       operated in accordance with all of the following:
         1. 1.The delay electronics of the delayed egress locking system
            shall deactivate upon actuation of the automatic sprinkler
            system or automatic fire detection system, allowing immediate,
            free egress.
         2. 2.The delay electronics of the delayed egress locking system
            shall deactivate upon loss of power controlling the lock or
            lock mechanism, allowing immediate free egress.
         3. 3.The delayed egress locking system shall have the capability
            of being deactivated at the fire command center and other
            approved locations.
         4. 4.An attempt to egress shall initiate an irreversible process
            that shall allow such egress in not more than 15 seconds when
            a physical effort to exit is applied to the egress side door
            hardware for not more than 3 seconds. Initiation of the
            irreversible process shall activate an audible signal in the
            vicinity of the door. Once the delay electronics have been
            deactivated, rearming the delay electronics shall be by manual
            means only.
            Exception: Where approved, a delay of not more than 30 seconds
            is permitted on a delayed egress door.
         5. 5.The egress path from any point shall not pass through more
            than one delayed egress locking system.
            Exception: In Group I-2 or I-3 occupancies, the egress path
            from any point in the building shall not pass through more
            than two delayed egress locking systems provided the combined
            delay does not exceed 30 seconds.
         6. 6.A sign shall be provided on the door and shall be located
            above and within 12 inches (305 mm) of the door exit hardware:
              1. 6.1. For doors that swing in the direction of egress, the
                 sign shall read: PUSH UNTIL ALARM SOUNDS. DOOR CAN BE
                 OPENED IN 15 [30] SECONDS.
              2. 6.2. For doors that swing in the opposite direction of
                 egress, the sign shall read: PULL UNTIL ALARM SOUNDS.
                 DOOR CAN BE OPENED IN 15 [30] SECONDS.
              3. 6.3 The sign shall comply with the visual character
                 requirements in [219]ICC A117.1.
            Exception: Where approved, in Group I occupancies, the
            installation of a sign is not required where care recipients
            who, because of clinical needs, require restraint or
            containment as part of the function of the treatment area.
         7. 7.Emergency lighting shall be provided on the egress side of
            the door.
         8. 8.The delayed egress locking system units shall be listed in
            accordance with [220]UL 294.

The rationale, presumably, is a compromise between safety of occupants (so that people can get out without excessive delay) and security of goods (to hinder people trying to steal goods and run away).

I'll also point out that the delay feature is required to deactivate under certain circumstances. If your hypothetical earthquake caused the sprinkler or fire detection systems to activate, or it caused the power to fail, the door could be opened immediately.

If Washington's legislators thought this provision was a bad idea, they could certainly create an amendment that would apply within Washington. It seems they have not seen fit to do so.

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The delay is presumably for theft prevention; and also to prevent fire alarms from going off when someone simply and honestly mistakes a fire exit for a real exit in an non-emergency sense.

The building safety and fire codes that allow such a delay will be very localized at the city/county/state level; you may be better off asking at that Costco, asking Costco at the corporate level, and the local fire department; all should be very up front for the rationale behind the delays and with your safety concerns. Edit: see user6726's answer for some relevant local codes.

Buildings that are open to the public (and in some cases, private buildings) are subject to regular fire code and building inspections, depending on local/state/federal laws. The inspections cover fire exits, alarms, sprinklers, occupancy ratings and structural inspections, and more. These same inspections can take place when a building is sold or when a building permit is issued for work. And these inspections can sometimes take place at random, too, depending on local codes. So if the delay mechanism on the door is illegal, it will be spotted at some point.

Costco as a corporation will have a building division with specific engineers tasked with building safety and liability. I'm sure Costco has done their due diligence for each store location and the relevant fire codes dealing with delay devices to help prevent "product leakage"; the liability - both real and imagined in terms of marketing and PR - is too great to make a mistake.

Presumably there are research metrics that allow the calculations for a reasonable time span of the delay allowed for the opening of exit doors. Building safety and fire codes codes will take into account the number of exits in a building, where those exits exist (ground floor, upper floors with exterior stairs), the maximum occupancy of a building, as well as other factors such as seismic threats and the survivability of a structure in an earthquake, the speed at which a fire can expand and when smoke may fill a structure, and more.

15 seconds isn't that much time; think of the time you might stand still and look around after you first heard a fire alarm. I'd say that's easily 15 seconds. But 15 seconds is a long time for someone to stand and wait at a door if they are stealing. To be clear, I'd be a bit curious and maybe worried if I saw that sign; and esp. if I saw a fire door locked/chained closed, which would be highly illegal and outlawed by code. But I can see a reason for such a 15 second delay.

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It's simple. The delay is to prevent theft. If the fire system detects a fire, the delay is removed, if the power goes out, the delay is removed. All other situations the delay is in place. If you want to change building codes to include earthquake and gunfire sensors (both are available) then you need to proposition your local government officals. If you think it is unsafe at these businesses, then do not shop there until the code is changed.

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  • How do you know the system does these things? Got a source? – zibadawa timmy Jun 16 '19 at 13:32
  • @zibadawatimmy: See my answer, particularly subparagraph 1 of the cited Fire Code section. – Nate Eldredge Jun 16 '19 at 14:51

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