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Secured School Entry Vestibules: Reducing Weak Points and Increasing Sightlines | #schoolsaftey

Multifunctional, fire-rated glazing supports a welcoming environment and protects against multiple life-safety threats.

Across the country, school districts are taking steps to guard against violence on campus. Texas schools now require forced-entry-resistant films on first-floor exterior windows and full-lite glass entry doors. Likewise, Missouri and Tennessee have passed legislation that requires ballistic-resistant rated glazing on exterior windows and glass within and adjacent to exterior doors. An Ohio senator has proposed a similar bill in his state.

As safety and security continue to receive added emphasis in educational settings, it can raise questions for design teams and school administrators alike. For instance, how can school buildings be designed to guard against life safety threats while also creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and growing? And what complications arise when a system needs to provide multiple forms of protection simultaneously? The answers to these questions are particularly relevant for entry vestibules as they are integral to access control and connecting the parking lot and building’s interior, functionally and aesthetically.

According to the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) K–12 guidelines, secure entry vestibules are a tier-one security measure. Because they are crucial for establishing effective access control strategies, which can include locking devices and visitor monitoring protocols, PASS considers them a baseline. They also give students, parents, and visitors their first impression of a school, making them extremely important in establishing a welcoming environment. All these duties make it critical to understand best practices that prioritize security, fire and life safety, and an inviting design.

Best Practices for Safer School Design

Both the PASS K–12 guidelines and the International Code Council’s (ICC) Building Safety and Security Report acknowledge that designing safer schools can be nuanced, multi-faceted, and complex. But the goal of these designs is simple: to promote safety for students and teachers every day in every situation. When it comes to entry vestibules, one specific consideration is how to best deter and delay violent intruders. As Kathy Martinez Prather, Director of the Texas School Safety Center, told Texas lawmakers in early 2023, “Time barriers save lives.”

While the means to achieving this goal may vary depending on the building type and location, understanding the desired result can help project stakeholders navigate their options. When it comes to entry vestibules, the PASS K–12 guidelines recommend specifying a code-compliant mechanical lock or exit device and a doorbell. They also recommend that a staff member or volunteer assess any visitor’s request to enter — as stated, “The ability to visually assess the visitor is critical, whether directly or remotely.”

The ICC’s Building Safety and Security Report not only provides recommendations on material selection, including security-rated glazing for all exposed glass in applications under the seven-foot mark (or six-foot, depending on location within the vestibule), but it also provides an overview of locking and unlocking procedures that balance student access and building security. In this report, the ICC recommends secured entry vestibules include a transaction window with a security rating, so office personnel can visually assess visitors directly before granting access.

It is important to note that best practice recommendations from both PASS and ICC are organized in tiers, which move from a baseline to more robust security measures. As such, school administrators and security experts are encouraged to use these resources to determine which tiers are the most effective and feasible for their buildings.

In addition, as critical as it is to know what to do, knowing what to avoid can give security directors, school administrators, and other personnel context on how best to achieve their security goals. The Building Safety and Security Report acknowledges that discussions on enhancing school safety will likely take on high emotions and a sense of urgency, which may result in the use of countermeasures that can “actually hinder occupant safety during non-violent emergencies, which are also much more common.” For example, non-fire code-compliant locking hardware (also known as barricade devices), while allowed in some jurisdictions, may put occupants at risk during a fire emergency. This caveat is echoed in the PASS K–12 guidelines, which add that these devices may violate accessibility standards as well. Campus Safety took a stand against non-compliant barricade devices back in 2018.

To ensure a countermeasure’s viability, it is recommended that security directors work with an Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) to ensure a security product does not violate building codes or accessibility standards.

How Rated Glazing Contributes to School Safety and Security Goals

Specifying components for an entry vestibule often begins with door hardware. Code-compliant locks and other access control devices ensure schools can welcome students and visitors while also delaying violent intruders. Based on findings from the final report of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, locked classroom doors have not been breached. As Guy Grace, active Consultant Advisor for PASS, and other security experts note, active shooters do not have time to force their way through locked and security-rated doors.

It is important to note that current or former students commit most school shootings. These assailants can often bypass hardened exteriors, a fact that underscores the importance of a multilayered approach to school security. That said, violent intruders can and do still pose a threat — many recent school tragedies were committed by active shooters who breached a building’s exterior.

As indicated in the Building Safety and Security Report, the use of non-rated glass to increase visibility may run counter to developing a secure vestibule as the glass can be broken and allow intruders to bypass additional security measures like locks.

To help counteract this problem, design teams can turn to forced-entry and ballistic-rated glazing. Such products can maintain clear lines of sight while reducing weak points in an entry vestibule, supporting and enhancing access control systems’ efficacy. Likewise, these materials can complement surveillance systems by providing open sightlines from a school’s main office to the parking lot and beyond — another recommendation from the PASS K–12 guidelines. As such, security-rated glazing can be integral to enhancing building security. However, entry vestibules may also be required by code to have a fire rating. If this is the case, it is important for project owners and specifiers to understand the interplay between security and fire ratings.

The Importance of Component Capability

Since entry vestibules may need to take on multiple responsibilities, it follows that they may need assemblies that provide multiple forms of protection. Multifunctional, fire-rated glazing assemblies can help secure entry vestibules stand guard against the threat of fire and forced-entry attacks without compromising sightlines. These qualities improve the efficacy of both access control and surveillance systems. When made with compatible components, these assemblies can give project stakeholders peace of mind that they will perform as indicated through testing protocols.

Within a rated assembly, most often the components are only tested to the standards that govern their use. Fire-rated materials pass requisite fire tests, and security-rated components pass their tests. When a glazing assembly needs to provide multiple forms of protection, school designers and security directors may be tempted to combine security-rated products with fire-rated ones, but that could have unintended consequences for the performance of the complete system.

For example, as stated in an AIA course from the National Glass Association, many security-rated products can affect an assembly’s ability to perform during a fire. This is because after-market films are often plastic-based, so they may burn quickly and intensely. If they are combined with fire-rated glazing, their burning could very well exceed the temperature rise and maximum temperature ranges used in fire tests. In turn, these components may significantly reduce or even negate an assembly’s fire rating — putting occupants at risk in the event of a fire. Given the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimates there to be 3,000 school fires annually, safeguarding students and teachers from flames, smoke, and heat is an important part of safe school design.

In addition, the International Window Film Association (IWFA) has recently published an official statement saying that window films, by themselves, have not been tested to be bullet-resistant. Its application may not prevent the entry of a bullet unless the glass itself has a security-rating. Following, while combining aftermarket security products with both fire-rated and non-rated glazing assemblies may seem like the quickest fix, security directors, school administrators, and specifiers are encouraged to thoroughly research components and their compatibility. This may delay enhancements to school security, but it is paramount to ensure these products increase security and that one form of protection does not come at the expense of another.

To streamline the process, project stakeholders can meet security and design goals without sacrificing fire and life safety requirements by specifying glazing systems made from components that are known to be compatible or are tested as a complete system across multiple testing protocols. Doing so ensures an assembly’s rating will more accurately reflect its performance in the field. It also streamlines the research and design phase, potentially quickening the timeline to installation.

Part of a Multilayer Approach

While each of the above guidelines can help raise the baseline of security for entry vestibules, PASS states that no individual security measure or system will prove universally effective at deterring and delaying violent intruders and active shooters. Instead, a multilayered approach to building security offers schools several time barriers to give faculty and students the opportunity to contact first responders and engage in lockdown procedures if necessary. Likewise, while not explicitly stated in the ICC’s Building Safety and Security Report, the committee’s recommendations on planning, facility hardening, access control, and surveillance imply that multiple measures are more effective than any single one at enhancing building security.

A multi-layered approach not only helps stop violent intruders from gaining access to a school’s interior but can also enhance the ability for classrooms to act as shelter-in-place locations should an active shooter already be inside a school building. As such, a complete security plan goes beyond building secured entry vestibules. When school districts look to enhance the levels of safety and security their buildings provide, it is important to consider how layers (and materials within those layers) can work together to deter and delay violent intruders and active shooters — as well as how safer school designs can also encourage safety in every situation.

In line with a layered approach to security, multi-functional, fire-rated glazing (and the careful specification of locks and door hardware) can be used throughout a building’s interior to further improve the level of safety and security provided. When this type of glazing is transparent and offers a closer appearance to non-rated float glass, it can help project owners meet their security goals without compromising an environment that welcomes students and supports their needs.

Devin Bowman is General Manager of Technical Glass Products (TGP) and AD Systems. With nearly 20 years of industry experience, Bowman is actively involved in advancing fire- and life-safety codes and sits on the Glazing Industry Code Committee (GICC). Devin can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 426-0279.

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