The changing nature of risk in today’s buildings requires the adoption of new emergency lighting technologies.
From airports and shopping centres to stadia and leisure centres, environments worldwide are becoming increasingly urbanised and complex. Building safety measures must adapt too, as securing the safety of occupants or visitors is made even more challenging in complex buildings – particularly if they are not familiar with the building layout or safety procedures. When the evolution of buildings is combined with managing both traditional risks like fire and less traditional threats such as terrorist attacks, we must recognise the changing nature of risk today. This transformation has given cause for a paradigm shift in how the industry views emergency lighting and its importance in saving lives, particularly during emergency evacuations.
According to a 2020 Freedom of Information request conducted by Eaton amongst UK fire and rescue services, over a third (36%) reported an increase in the number of individuals they have rescued due to fire, flooding or any other safety risk or threat from a non-residential building compared to five years ago. Building and occupant safety is becoming more challenging as non-traditional threats have to be taken into account, from power outages to terrorism. The changing profile of risk today requires building owners and facilities managers to constantly re-evaluate safety strategies for those who use their premises.
One tragic and well-known example of the significance of emergency lighting in saving lives is that of the Grenfell Tower disaster of 2017 in London. An independent report from 2005 by Capita Symonds into the emergency lighting system at Grenfell Tower forewarned the disaster to come when it found two-thirds of the tower’s emergency lighting units failed a routine inspection. The report cited ‘inadequate management’, ‘inadequate installation standards’, a ‘failure to acknowledge the importance of undertaking urgent remedial works’ in addition to a ‘lack of communication’ between the managers of the tower and residents. Due to the fact there was no daylight in the Grenfell Tower staircase, emergency lighting was essential for the safe evacuation of residents. Defective lighting put them at a high risk in the case of a fire or other emergency.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy – along with many other fire-safety cases still brought to court in the UK each year – highlighted the importance of facilities owners and managers continually educating themselves on the expanding range of advanced technologies that crucially enable the safe, prompt and efficient evacuation of spaces and buildings.
In just a fraction of a second, the shift from bright, clear mains lighting to total blackout can cause maximum panic and confusion. Exit signs are vital to ensure the safe, efficient evacuation of occupants by marking emergency exits, pathways, obstacles and required changes of direction. Escape-route lighting plays a key role in reducing panic and identifying obstacles during evacuation in non-blackout scenarios – such as a fire, terror or other security incident – by ensuring a minimum amount of illumination. An effective emergency lighting system also guides people in and around enclosed and open environments, as well as helping them locate safety equipment plus refuge and assembly points. By delivering essential illumination, emergency lighting reduces panic and saves lives.
The most iconic emergency lighting technology is the green running man pictogram design adopted as the international standard ISO 7010 in 1985 after it won a Japanese fire-safety association competition in the late 1970s. The icon, designed by Yukio Ota, has since been adopted and adapted in many countries worldwide. A design classic, its calm, universal simplicity transcends language barriers and makes it easily understood. Pictogram-based signs such as this take a cognitive approach and encourage a quicker response from people compared to written instructions.
In the decades since the iconic ‘green man’ arrived, emergency lighting has evolved into a sophisticated industry that is constantly refining existing technology, as well as innovating. Inevitably its learning has been informed by landmark events such as London’s Kings Cross underground station fire in 1987, the departure hall blaze in Düsseldorf Airport in 1996, the Twin Towers disaster of 2001 and 2013’s Nairobi Westgate Mall terror attack. All such high-profile incidents – and every smaller one too – sharpen the focus on making evacuation and emergency wayfinding faster, simpler and more effective.
One such development is in the area referred to as ‘increased affordance’ and is focused on making escape routes more recognisable. Evacuating commercial buildings can be made harder by people’s failure to notice standard emergency exit signs during an incident and a tendency to return to the point where they entered the building – a situation that can lead to overcrowding, congestion and delays when every second counts. In fact, research has shown that only 38% of people see conventional static exit signs when evacuating from an unfamiliar environment. Much of this in larger public spaces is down to distraction from branding, advertising and informational signage. Increased affordance technology tackles this challenge by making signs much more visible to occupants during an emergency evacuation by flashing or pulsing but never dipping below industry required luminance standards.
Innovations in adaptive signage have allowed emergency lighting systems to respond to conditions as they change. The danger posed by fires, acts of terrorism and natural disasters will frequently change as the event unfolds. It means that static signage may no longer be showing the most appropriate exit route for the specific set of circumstances building occupants may find themselves facing. Adaptive signage that can change is a solution – encouraging people away from unsafe escape routes and showing an alternative. Fully adaptive signs, meanwhile, can change to indicate a new direction, as well as revert to their original route direction state once conditions permit. Both types enable building owners to direct people to safety in the safest way possible as the situation evolves.
Advanced technology emergency lighting is a solution that more and more architects, specifiers, consultants and building owners are choosing in order to make their spaces as safe as they can possibly be in a complex world of growing threats. However, effective emergency lighting is also increasingly essential for ensuring the peace of mind of those responsible for the safety measures within public and commercial buildings – when six-figure fines and even prison are the price for getting things wrong. As just one example, a care home operator in Wales was fined £400,000 in October 2020 for fire-safety breaches, including deficient emergency lighting. Compliant emergency lighting is a legal imperative, enforced in most countries by both the authorities and insurers as well as being heavily governed and defined by product, application and installation legislation standards covering occupational safety and building regulations.
A key element of the compliance landscape is the EN50172 standard. This sets out the requirements for emergency lighting when the supply to all or part of the normal lighting in occupied premises fails. It states that emergency lighting shall: indicate escape routes clearly and unambiguously, provide illumination along such routes to allow safe movement towards and through the exits provided, ensure that fire-alarm call points and firefighting equipment provided along escape routes can be readily located and permit operations concerned with safety measures.
To ensure that emergency lighting is fit for purpose, a combination of standards and regulations covers all aspects of its safety. Using a third party to certify or test a system is an effective way of helping to ensure quality, reliability and conformity – but it doesn’t absolve facilities managers and building owners of their own safety obligations. The EN50172 standard – which also applies to standby lighting used as emergency escape lighting – recommends that discussions should be held pre-design to establish the areas to be covered, method of operation, testing regime and most suitable system type. These discussions should include the owner or occupier of the premises plus the system designer, installer, equipment supplier and fire authority.
Whether it be a fire, flood, terror attack or power outage, an effective emergency lighting system acts as a critical lifeline in emergency situations. From fines to fatalities, there are a multitude of critical reasons why facilities managers and owners must take emergency lighting seriously. Decision-makers need to reduce risk by educating themselves on new technologies and regulatory requirements to keep up with the changing nature of risk in today’s buildings and ultimately save lives in the process. This means doing their due diligence and asking the right questions to better understand the fundamentals of emergency lighting.
We’ve witnessed a lot of change since the original iconic ‘green man’, with innovative technologies transforming the sector and improving safety for all building occupants. This new technology, combined with the increasing complexity and evolving risk profile of buildings today means there is no excuse for shirking best practice when people’s lives are at risk.