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Exits and Fire Exits

Should there be an outbreak of fire, it is essential that people can safety and quickly evacuate the building without being put at any risk.  Fire exit routes need to lead as directly to a place of safety as possible and must be marked with exit signs.

The exact numbers of fire exits needed in any building depends on a number of factors, including the number of people who could potentially use the exit, and the ability of those people to move to the exit.

Churches and Places of Worship that have recently been refurbished or built will comply with the current Building Regulations so the number and size of the fire exits should be adequate in these situations.  In older premises, the exits will need further assessment to ensure the exits are large enough and well distributed.

Evacuation Time

In most Churches and Places of Worship, the time taken to evacuate the building should be about 2 minutes 30 seconds.  This includes an allowance for the initial time it may take for people to respond to the alarm.

The above time can be increased by up to 30 seconds for new buildings that comply with the latest Building Regulations, or reduced as much as necessary for a high fire risk building, such as those predominantly built from wood, or where the risk to life due to fire is much higher than average.

Numbers and size of exits

A typical single-width exit door (750mm wide) will allow about 40 people per minute to evacuate.  Larger doors will typically allow more people to pass through, so a 1050mm door width can allow as many as 80 people to evacuate per minute. 

However, when calculating how many exits are required, it is usually assumed that the largest exit route from any given area is unavailable because it is blocked by fire.  If more than one exit discharges into the same place (for example, a lobby or foyer), then consider the aggregate loss of exit capacity caused by a fire in the lobby.

It is often the case that the number of fire exits limits the number of people that can safely use a building, although other factors can have an impact.  In some cases, the number of seats is the deciding factor as to the capacity of a room or building.  In others, it is more down to the practicalities of the number of people being in the room.

It is commonly accepted that one exit is adequate in buildings where no more than 60 people congregate, providing that the building is on ground floor level only and the premises are of low risk.  However, it is always recommended that more than one fire exit is available so there is always another way out if the main entrance is blocked by fire.  Furthermore, smaller rooms of low occupancy with low fire risk need only one exit, which would be typical of many offices and vestries.

The fire exits should be distributed around the building so ensuring that people can reach a safe exit route should another route be blocked by fire.  Ideally the two exit routes would go in opposite directions, but at the very least they should be positioned so that they are far enough apart so that a fire blocking one of the doors will not block the other.  In looking at the direction of the exits, also consider any furniture or obstacles that could prevent people taking a direct path to an exit.

In some buildings, inward opening, rotating or sliding doors are installed at main entrances.  These types of door are usually unacceptable as emergency exit doors.  Alternative routes out from the premises may be needed, or alternative means used to secure the doors open will be needed.

Note that windows and ladders are not acceptable for use as fire exits in Churches and Places of Worship because the public cannot be expected to use these in an emergency.

Travel Distances

The distance a person must travel has to be considered.  This is the distance that a person needs to move to reach the final exit from the building, or to a storey exit within a fire protected staircase (or similar place of relative safety). 

Consideration must be given to furniture and building features that might make the travel distance longer as people move around these objects.

A number of travel distances have been published in government guidance, and for a typical Church or Place of Worship with normal fire risks, the following would usually apply as recommendations:

  • 32 metres in areas with seating in rows where more than one exit is provided
  • 15 metres in areas with seating in rows where there is only one exit
  • 45 metres in all other areas where more than one exit is provided
  • 18 metres in all other areas where there is only one exit


The seating plan can also play a significant role in the safe evacuation of people.  The layout should ensure people can access a safe aisle or circulation space readily.

Ideally, seating should be secured to the floor so that seats do not move or fall over.  If seating is not secured to the floor, rows should usually be no longer than 12 seats and the seats should be secured together.  No fewer than four seats should be secured together otherwise the seats could be tipped over easily and block someone's exit route.

Where stand-alone seating is used, the layout should allow for the inevitable rearrangement of seating by people in the congregation, and enough seats should be put out to prevent people adding seats to the end of rows and in aisles which could block the exit route. 

Seating plans need to allow free and ready access to exit routes (including aisles) and allowance needs to be made for wheelchair users so that they do not need to use aisle space.  Aisles should be at least 1.05 metres wide along the entire length.  Seats should allow for a clear 'seatway' of 305mm (which is the distance between the back of one seat to the closest part of the one behind).  This allows space for people to move along a row of seats.

Door locks and security

For the final exit door from the building, it would be usual to use panic locks (of the 'push bar to open' kind).  Such doors must be opened quickly in an emergency as people might panic as they evacuate the burning building, so additional locks or mechanisms must not be fitted.  Panic pads are not usually acceptable for use in places of public assembly, including Churches. 

It must be remembered that the door should be capable of being opened by any person immediately in an emergency.  Some kinds of locks and latches used on doors may be unsuitable for use by everyone - some people may not be able to operate certain kinds of lever, knob or handle due to dexterity problems.

Some doors might be secured by locks and keys.  It considered unacceptable to have a key available nearby or in a red 'break glass' key box to open a fire exit door in a Place of Worship.  Instead, a thumb-turn should be fitted to the inside of such doors to allow the door to be unlocked quickly by anyone. 

Members of the public should be expected to have to operate more than one simple, unambiguous (and ideally labelled device) to open a door in an emergency.

Electronic Door Controls

Electronic locking systems are becoming more popular for security reasons.  Door locking systems must either be fitted with a mechanical override (which is easily operated by any person), or be fail-safe and provided with emergency releases.

Any electronic door system which does not have a  direct mechanical override and is to be used by the public must be directly interfaced with the fire detection and alarm system.  The door should be interfaced such that it unlocks if the alarm is raised, or if there is a fault on the system, and must not lock again until the system has been reset.

Additionally, a green 'break glass' call point is to be situated next to the door to allow the lock to be manually released in an emergency.  This device must be designed to remove the power from the lock, which allows the door to open immediately.

When electronic locking systems are used, the design should conform to BS 7273 and confirm to a Category A system as outlined in the standard (Category B or Category C are applicable for any areas which will not be used by the public).

Unwanted use of exit doors

Unofficial and unwanted use of fire exit doors can be a problem in some premises.  It might be that people could be looking for a short cut, or want some extra ventilation in hot weather. The use of fire exit doors can lead to other safety and security implications, not least the safety of children so many people want to restrict the use of these doors.

There are a number of ways in which the use of fire exit doors can be controlled.  Breakable straps are available that seal around the panic bar, or can be looped through screwed eyelet fixings.  These seals break at about 10 to 12kg force, so will break when the door is opened for legitimate reasons.  Note that cable ties and other non-breakable or home-made securing methods must not be used as these will prevent people using the exit door.

Alarms can be a useful deterrent to unwanted fire exit use.  The simplest is a stick-on alarm available for a few pounds from most hardware stores.  The disadvantage of these is that many models are very loud and can be turned off by a small switch on the side.  However, a number of manufacturers produce specific fire exit alarms that cost more but have the advantage of having a key or code number to limit who can arm or disarm the alarm

In any case, security features must not inhibit the legitimate use of the door, and should allow for the door to be opened as part of the routine checks made on fire precautions in the premises.

Inward Opening doors

To ensure people can evacuate the premises quickly, exit doors should open in the direction of travel. 

In some situations, including many older / historic Parish Church buildings, the doors open inwards.  While this might be acceptable for Places of Worship where only a small number congregate (60 or fewer people), it is unlikely this would be acceptable in other situations.

In some cases, the door can be secured open with a cabin hook, or more securely with a padlock and key to prevent unauthorised closing (which can happen in cold weather).  Where this is not practical, the door can be supervised by a steward or a nominated person (such as a fire Marshal) who will have to open and secure the door in the event of a fire.  Any person given this role should sit close to the door at all times and cover should be arranged for holidays, sickness or other duties.

Keep Clear

Fire exit routes must be kept clear at all times.

There are 'rules' about what you cannot have in corridors, foyers and similar spaces, because they might hamper evacuation in a fire, or even cause the fire in the first place. The list includes:

Bullet pointPortable heating equipment (including electric heaters);
Bullet pointAnything that has a naked flame, including candles and lamps;
Bullet pointCooking equipment (including tea urns and kettles);
Bullet pointBins and rubbish bags;
Bullet pointStored items, such as clothes for a charity shop or bring-and-buy sale; and
Bullet pointNotice boards (unless small and the notices are kept firmly pinned onto the board).

It might be acceptable to have a coat rack in the escape route as long as it does not reduce the width of the exit significantly.  Fire retardant furniture might be acceptable, again providing that there is no reduction in the escape route width (also give consideration to the fact that people will often move the furniture about and this could block the exit route). 

Be mindful t that people who are trying to leave a smoke-filled room will often use the walls as a guide, so obstructions on, or close to, a wall are not desirable.  This includes objects that are installed close to head-height, such as loudspeakers, that might not be seen in a power cut or a smoke filled room.

In the event of fire, smoke can quickly make visibility poor.  Exits need to be well lit by normal mains lighting, which should be switched on whenever the building is in use.  In many situations, emergency lighting might be necessary both inside the building and directly outside the final exit doors.  Such lighting would be designed to provide enough light to find an exit in safety.

Exits for people with disabilities

Current Equality legislation requires a provision of suitable fire exits for disabled people.  In some buildings, it might be possible to have a number of dedicated exit routes for people with impaired mobility where the normal fire exits are not suitable.  In situations where exit routes need to be marked as being suitable for wheelchair users, special exit signs are available which show a wheelchair symbol next to the usual fire exit symbols, arrow and text.

In some larger buildings (on more than one storey level), it might be necessary to provide 'refuge points' for disabled or elderly people to wait for assistance.  This is necessary because most lifts cannot be used in the event of fire as people might be put in greater danger if the lift doors open onto the fire itself.  Refuge areas usually need to have some form of intercom or communications system and must be protected against fire by means of fire doors.

In any case, you should have a procedure in place to enable the safe evacuation of all people from the building.  This includes those that might have impaired hearing, mobility, sight or perception.  For regular attenders, employees and volunteers, consider setting up a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP), where a detailed plan is laid down for each person, highlighting who will provide assistance and what assistance is needed.  Generic Emergency Evacuation Plans (GEEPs) can be beneficial for visitors.

Fire and Emergency Assembly Point

A Fire Assembly Point is a place of safety where people meet if there is a fire or similar emergency.  This needs to be away from the building, and the normal recommendation is for it to be a distance equal to twice the height of the building.  The assembly point must be large enough to accommodate all the people that might be present and located so that people do not get in the way of the emergency services.

It is also wise to have a second assembly point available.  If the main assembly point is being affected by a fire, people can be moved to a further place of safety.

Consideration also needs to be given to the weather.  While fire drills are usually organised for reasonable weather, a fire may happen at any time.  It is wise to ensure that precautions are taken to ensure that people can be kept warm and dry in such inclement weather.  This may mean that a nearby building needs to be used as an assembly point.

Additional Information

The Department for Communities and Local Government has provided a series of fire safety guides.  Of interest to most Churches and Places of Worship will be the guide covering Small and Medium Places of Assembly and the guide covering Large Places of Assembly.  There is also a guide on Means of Escape for Disabled People.

If there is any doubt as to the suitability of exit routes, it is recommended that a competent person conducts a Fire Risk Assessment to determine if the size and distribution of exits, and the travel distance, is acceptable.

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