A means of egress is an exit path that occupants may use to safely exit a building. It is designed to provide safe and easy travel during a fire or other emergency so that the risk of injury or death is minimized. Most facilities have more than one means of egress, though the exact number of exits depends on the building's function, design, and occupancy load. Once in place, exit paths must be carefully maintained to ensure they are not blocked or compromised during normal building operation.
In the US, means of egress requirements are set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). This organization develops standards for fire safety in the building industry. While NFPA standards are not a law in themselves. they are typically adopted into local building codes. Most other countries have similar organizations for developing these standards, many of which have requirements similar to those of the NFPA.
While many builders focus solely on the exit door itself, there are actually three separate components that make up each means of egress. The first is the exit access, or egress path. This is the path of travel that takes occupants from their workspace to a safe exit. It may include corridors, offices, or any other types of space that the occupant must pass through to reach the exit. The path must be well-marked with illuminated exit signs to guide workers or residents during a emergency.
The second component, the exit door, is located at the end of the exit access path. This door must lead out towards the public space, but may not necessarily exit to the outdoors. It may consist of interior doors leading to a vestibule, doors leading to an exterior pathway, or a door leading to an exit ramp.
After passing through the exit door, occupants will arrive at the exit discharge. The exit discharge provides access to the public way, which may include a street, alley, or sidewalk. The area beyond the exit discharge must be kept free of obstacles at all times, including dumpsters, tools, and other equipment.
According to NFPA, all doors along a means of egress must be at least 28 inches (71.1 cm) wide to allow people of all sizes to exit safely. The corridors along the exit path should also be 28 inches (71.1 cm) wide, and may not be any shorter than 7 feet 6 inches (2.3 m) in height. Each door must swing in the direction of travel, and should be easily unlocked without keys, tools, or specialized knowledge. Chains and other locking devices may not be used on these doors at any time, as they could prevent occupants from exiting. Other jurisdictions may have other rules.