Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
May 24, 1996

Door options for fire safety: Office door can be open if you're in, but lose the wedge

by Linda Charles
Emery Sobottka's dream is to invent a door wedge that melts at the first sign of a fire. He could retire on the profits and the university would not have to worry about violating the fire code. But until Sobottka's dream comes true, those door wedges are strictly illegal.

Sobottka, director of environmental health and safety, is in the unenviable position of trying to enforce a fire code regulation that has annoyed many faculty, staff and students. The regulation says all buildings must have a safe way for people to get out, usually through a main hallway, staircase or both.

Designated passages must have an "envelope of protection," which means that they will remain safe during a fire for a certain period of time, Sobottka said. The envelope is provided by closing off other areas from the protected passageway.

That is where the problem comes, Sobottka said, because the areas that must be closed off often are offices. Office doors that open onto protected passageways either must be on a magnetic-open system that will automatically close the doors during a fire or must remain closed when unoccupied.

Installing the magnetic-open systems in campus buildings is costly and will take a long time to accomplish, Sobottka said. The solution for now, in most cases, is to keep the doors closed.

Unfortunately, the people in those offices often have good reasons for keeping the doors open, Sobottka said. Some faculty maintain that closing their doors makes students feel unwelcome. Others find opening doors is the only way to ventilate their offices.

What can you do?

If it's a lab, don't leave the door open at all. Hazardous materials in labs pose too great a threat during a fire, Sobottka said. The state fire marshal says if it's an office, you can keep the door open as long as you are in it. But close the door any time you leave your office, including during a quick trip down the hall to talk to a colleague.

And if you prop your door open, use something other than a rubber or wood door wedge. The wedges drive fire marshals crazy. That's because when there is a fire, people in a hurry tend to forget the wedges are there. They try to close the doors, jamming the wedges in deeper, making it virtually impossible to close the doors at all.

Sobottka repeatedly has gone through buildings removing wedges from doors, only to find them back in place within a couple of hours. He used to throw the wedges in trash cans. Now he takes them to a dumpster, but still to no avail. "The wedges have a very quick gestation period," he jokes.

Iowa State has been cited for open door fire code violations repeatedly. Correcting these violations and making the university a safer place for our students and colleagues, he said, is as easy as shutting the door on your way out.

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