Putting an End to the Tragic Equation Codes Seek to Improve Emergency Exit Visibility
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By Stephen Farley, CSI, CDT
Tragedy could have been avoided, if only the emergency exits were used. How many times has that proclamation been delivered in response to a deadly fire or stampede at a public gathering place? Case after case shows that, despite beefed up safety regulations and improved reliability and functionality of egress hardware, emergency exits are often overlooked in the rush to flee a building. Finally, the obvious question is being asked; why were the emergency exits not used? The answer to that question is now taking a central role in efforts to improve building safety codes throughout the country.
As follow-up investigations have shown, during emergency evacuations, people tend to leave a building the same way they entered. Since most people typically enter a facility through the main entrance, an emergency or panic situation will create a rush of people trying to squeeze through the same exit—often with deadly consequences. When building occupants are asked why they didn’t take advantage of emergency exits the response is usually the same; in the panic and confusion of the situation, the exits were difficult to locate.
This is especially true in fires. Because smoke rises, the natural and correct instinct is to get as close to the ground as possible. This same action, combined with the decreased visibility from the smoke, makes it nearly impossible to spot exit signs located above the doors. It becomes a tragic equation: low visibility + panic + undetectable exits = no escape. The logical solution to this vexing problem is to make exits easily detectable from the ground. Lawmakers across the country are now doing their best to change the tragic equation by requiring low level exit signs and floor path lighting in buildings.
The need for greater egress lighting is well documented. The Providence Journal’s extensive coverage of The Station nightclub fire includes firsthand testimony from patrons that were inside the West Warick, Rhode Island, club when a band’s pyrotechnics display set fire to foam insulation. Robert Riffe, who was at the club with a friend, provided the Journal with a chilling, written account of his experience the night of February 20, 2003. (The full account can be read at
Describing the first few seconds when flames erupted, Riffe, turned to his friend and, as reported in the Journal, stated, “Then after a couple of seconds and the flames began to grow, I turned to him and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’ We both turned and headed for the main door, which like many people, was the only door we knew of.”
Riffe goes on to describe the panic that ensued and the lifeand- death struggle to get through the door. “As I got within inches from the door way, I just came to a complete stop. I couldn’t move. Being careful not to fall down and get trampled, I bent down, sucked up some air from the floor area where there was no smoke, held my breath, and pushed forward. I had gotten my head and torso out of the main door, so I was breathing fresh air, but my legs were caught in the middle of the people piled in the door way.”
With assistance from a stranger, Riffe made it out and immediately tried helping others through the door. But the fire spread so rapidly there was little he could do. “I tried pulling on one man and could not get him to even budge the tiniest bit. I grabbed onto a woman who was trapped at the bottom, and could not get her to budge either. I felt so useless,” he stated in the Journal.
“Just then, the flames reached the doorway and the people who I had just been trapped under, were now burning. I couldn’t and I started to go into what I assume was a state of shock. I couldn’t move.” Riffe and his friend made it out alive. Of the 430 people inside the club that night, 100 died and approximately 200 were injured.
In his account of the incident, Riffe says the smoke obscured the visibility of exits. “Also, just to put my opinion out there,” his Journal account states, “I hope some kind of law is passed which requires lighted exit signs not to only be placed above the doors but near the floor as well. With the smoke being as thick and black as it was, no one was in anyway able to see the exit signs.”
Soon after the fire, Rhode Island passed legislation that revamps the state’s safety codes. Included in the legislation is a provision requiring floor proximity exit signs for all occupancies greater than 150. Buildings that meet the set criteria must be in compliance by February 20, 2005.
Other states are following suit. Governor Mitt Romney has asked Massachusetts lawmakers to consider a bill that would overhaul the state’s fire safety codes. The legislation is based on a report created by a special task force that reviewed Massachusetts codes in response to The Station fire. The task force made several recommendations addressing building egress, including enhancing exit identification with low-level path lighting leading to exits, outlining exit doors with luminescent marking, distinctive exit sign lighting and requiring regular testing and maintenance of exit signs and lights.
New York City is taking similar steps to improve the visibility of emergency exits. The New York City Council is now considering a bill that would require all buildings greater than 100 feet in height to be outfitted with exit path markings and secondary exit signs on all doors opening to corridors, exits or exit passageways.
The proposed legislation implements recommendations set forth by the World Trade Center Building Code Task Force. Comprised of experts from government, the real estate community, and the design and construction professions, the task force was created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to evaluate the safety of high rise buildings. If the bill passes, all affected buildings would have to comply with the safety regulations by the end of 2005.
California is ahead of other states in egress lighting codes. The state has already adopted code language (1013.5la Path Marking) requiring floor-level exit signs and path marking systems under certain conditions.
Manufacturers are doing their part to come up with products that improve life safety. New luminescent technologies are being used to produce floor path lighting systems that are clearly visible in low light conditions. Door hardware manufacturers are incorporating these same technologies to turn everyday locking products into secondary exit signs, directing egress traffic directly to the latch release mechanism of exit hardware.
Fire Safety officials in the states adopting the new regulations hope the new building codes and egress products will, together, put an end to the tragic equation. Look for political momentum to carry similar regulations to states and municipalities across the country as each jurisdiction looks to improve public safety.
About the Author: Stephen Farley, CSI, CDT is an Architectural Representative for ESSEX Industries based out of New Haven, Conn. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 860-599-8599.
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