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As technology begins to change the very basis of a sign into a fluid message, the very nature of an exit signs may be changing. Recent patents, for example patent application 20070203840, are creating the notion of a ‘community’ sign.

The technology being proposed integrates planned retail messages into display signs, through an “open content” network. By the same token, technology will eventually make the classic exit sign susceptible to other messages related to emergency exiting.

Content can be selectively downloaded to particular signs. Imagine the possibility of an emergency exit sign actually tailoring its message to the emergency: “Hurry. Buy New Shoes at Billing’s Department…Exit Here.” A more likely use, however, of smart signs will integrate other detection devices into exit information…perhaps even radiological detectors.

In the short term, “smart” exit signs are already seeing some networking to benefit discreet groups of people. A wireless network system is enabling those with visual impairments to use a transmitted signal from exit signs, in order to be guided accurately into appropriate egress. To make the system work, it was necessary to create a self-organizing mesh of data signals.

The exit light emits a digital signal, reaching a prescribed distance to someone’s handheld unit. Information will help orient (e.g.) a blind person’s distance and direction to the exit.

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By the Book

Emergency lighting, as the best technicians know, blends with standard egress lighting to create a comprehensive lighting system. Specific codes address these common purposes, as well. Take for example the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code (NFPA), found at section 101.

The code requires the installation and maintenance of emergency lighting under section 5-8, “Illumination of Means of Egress.” But codes cannot adequately address all of the eventualities of an emergency situation. Sometimes, tragedy is the best teacher.

The attack on the Trade Towers of New York in 1993 has become an industry classic…evacuation took over seven hours. The stress of the evacuation, indeed, was one of the lingering health effects in this crisis laden atmosphere. The evacuation of the Tower’s cataclysmic failure on 9/11 took a fraction of that time. The distinction was in an important measure due to the upgrades in the Trade Towers emergency power and lighting systems.

The attack in 1993 had ruptured the power ‘life line.’ Those fleeing the building had virtually no light as they struggled down the stairwells.

OSHA also requires emergency lighting under Section 1910.36 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Also because of the lesson from 9/11, OSHA has developed safety protocols to address the need to train staff to use emergency lighting effectively. The awareness of emergency lighting as a tool continues to improve preparations for the unknown. Hopefully, keeping people from groping–literally or figuratively–in the dark.

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Now You See It…

The use of emergency light fixtures will always be a balance of competing functions. Specifically, can the appearance of the fixture support the occasional emergency capacity, reliably? I’m always looking for the two sides of this equation: a new invention, and the occasional breakdown in fixture reliability (especially if they result in recalls).That’s why the low-profile variety of fixtures is always on the radar of interesting options. To be honest, however, most of these emergency light fixtures tend to be attractive only if used in residential settings. On occasion, these fixtures can be used in more boutique commercial settings. Traditional commercial settings that need more than the ususal short-term emergency service of a residential setting are more willing to sacrifice looks for multi-hour units.

A new era of emergency and egress light fixture lighting that is flush against the wall is here. One exemplary unit also features the unique ‘pop up’ lens cover. In the event of power failure, the lens automatically opens. Before engaging in emergency mode, the fixture appears to be nothing more than an old-fashioned light switch plate. The internal battery will take a recharge once power is restored…and in good imitation of Star War’s R2D2, the lens retracts after AC power is restored.

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Signs of Weakness

Exit signage must meet at least the minimum standards for use, found (as one prominent example) in the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code (NFPA). This section also develops rules for the installation of exit signs (section 5-1, “Marking of Means of Egress”). As history has shown, the rules are always changing. It’s as though fire, and obviously terrorists, are always looking for signs of weakness.

Many of the last centuries exit sign standards came about because of the catastrophic Triangle Fire. The fire struck on March 25, 1911. Of the five hundred workers in the nine-story building (a high rise in those times), almost one third died.

The news caused an immediate investigation, as stories of women, trapped behind locked doors, with inadequate safeguards, had suffocated and (in several instances) leapt to their deaths. Many of the women were no more than children. The rage of the fire was intense, and estimates placed the carnage as lasting no more than fifteen minutes.

Though technology was not the harbinger of change, there were commissions established to investigate safety standards. Because so many of the workers had limited English skills, the first efforts to create ‘universal language’ signs had their footholds in the ashes of the Triangle Fire.

But problems with inadequately protected, designated, or maintained exits remain, to this day, a major factor in deaths.

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Write and Wrong

Emergency lighting under all applicable code requirements must be tested. Furthermore, these tests must have results committed to writing. In some occasions, however, there has been logistical confusion over when the writing may not be required.

This apparent inconsistency is explained by the instance when self-testing emergency lighting systems are being employed. It is still generally required that a written record (rather than electronic data) be kept.

“Written records of visual inspections and tests shall be kept by the owner for inspection by the authority having jurisdiction.” NFPA’s Life Safety Code, Article 5-9:3, Periodic Testing of Emergency Lighting Equipment.

In many instances, modern emergency lights will be labeled either ‘self-testing’ or ‘self-diagnostic.’ If the equipment is self-diagnosing, then one aspect of record keeping is modified…but not eliminated. The requirement for recording in writing the actual testing of the equipment is waived. This only applies to the monthly recording of the results of the 30 second continuos testing.

But if relying on the self-diagnostic test, then a visual inspection must still be made on the emergency lighting, once every 30 days. And the visual inspection must still be recorded in writing. Having a full annual test (of 90 minute duration) on the equipment is in no way modified by having self-diagnostic emergency lighting.

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Self Aware

One increased area of interest in emergency light fixtures comes from the integration of self-diagnostics into the fixture. While no one is (yet) making claims of robotic fixtures and self-repairing units, there are significant advantages in new, more elaborate fixtures. These programs are especially important to meet increasingly strict requirements for 30-day and annual diagnostics on all parts of emergency lighting.

If looking at self-diagnosing programs, be sure the equipment has been throughly tested, and what rewards come from its use (e.g., lowered maintenance costs and extended warranties). Be sure to find out that the diagnostics match existing national and local codes. After all, diagnostics that fail to meet industry standards are not self-aware enough to evidence limitations…or safety risks.

Many new fixtures will also allow for ‘remote’ sensing, saving costs in physical handling: these remote functions may include battery voltage, lamp continuity, incoming power, and unit performance. These tests may be run more often than minimal test requirements, perhaps as frequently as every 10 seconds.

Self-diagnostics can be figuratively invaluable in making sure maintenance issues are identified, perhaps in advance of scheduled diagnostics. After all, nothing says that emergencies manage to make themselves available for scheduled maintenance checks.

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Mind the Signs

Exit signs can be interesting plot devices, in the theater of life. On a freeway, there are generally eight shapes and sizes and exit signs. And exit signs are generally always going to be on the right-hand side of the designed exit, whether in a building or alongside a road. These rules suggest the certain ways the human mind functions, where ‘right’ predominates, and the rules of the right-handed tend to be followed in most countries around the world.

In real life, many of the signs we see are actually functions of how the mind works, regardless of better processes. An effective exit sign design now has to meet standard coding, so that people can literally be taught what to see, albeit subliminally. For example, some studies have suggested that people do subconsciously see the ubiquitous exit signs in (as an example) their own high-rise buildings, even as they cannot specifically state where it is, on a conscious level. “Design psychology” has emerged since the 1980’s as an essential part of modern life, extending its function even as people become increasingly unaware of its wide reach.

Culture, of course, can also rewire what people expect. In England, for example, one sign suggests the way to leave is ‘Way Out.’ In America, this sign would be more suggestive of the counter-culture from the 60’s.

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No Blank Checks

To the uninitiated, the range of code requirements for emergency lighting can be staggering. Three major code requirements are the Life Safety Code, the NFPA, and the National Electric Code. One of the major codes address the required need for a monthly check-up (the Life Safety Code).

Two of the codes also require annual inspection (NFPA 70 and the National Electric Code). But as any lawyer can tell you, if it isn’t in writing, “it doesn’t exist.” In other words, whether an inspection was conducted yesterday or months ago, a written record of the inspection must be kept.

Following, a summary of the data required in that record.

Required Monthly Checklist

Each light needs to be carefully, individually inspected for any physical damages. The test button must be pressed for thirty consecutive seconds. Alignment and adjustment of the beams are required. The AC charging system needs to be checked for functioning, and any electrical charges to top off are required.

Required Annual Checklist

A ninety (90) minute full-function test is required; the AC power supply to each unit must be disconnected and reconnected in the process. The battery and the lens must both be checked for function, including any corrosion or rust. The lens should be cleaned, as necessary, and the unit’s functions appropriately cleaned. The beam must be aligned as necessary. The voltage needs to be checked for its output and charging operability.

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Do You Recall?

One practical reason for regular inspections of emergency lighting fixtures has to do with the nature of emergencies. They are sporadic events, and when requisite emergency fixtures are ‘deployed,’ then the chance of finding failures can be catastrophic. The old axiom, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ comes into play. Then, it may be too late to fix the problem quickly and efficiently.

In any event, the use of emergency fixtures may well be required more often than monthly or annually. One aspect of this extended (and active) awareness of testing has to do with product recalls. For example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes the enormous costs associated with product failures in the American economy every year. The costs associated with failures are absolutely staggering: exceeding $700 billion each year.

On occasion, intelligent inspections actually work to the great advantage of manufacturers and the public. One instance involves voluntary recalls. In the event a manufacturer receives notice of some defect, they may contact the Consumer Product Commission, and notify them of the possible defect (often based on the manufacturer or distributor’s own investigation). This is roughly what happened when a trim assembly light distributed by Prescolite was melting part of the fixture assembly. Part of the assembly might have fallen, causing injury to passers by.

In any event, consumers are always best served by such aggressive, and voluntary, recalls. Consumers, notably, played the first part in the recall process.

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Exit Signs Kneeded

One current interest is the best, or varied, placement of exit signs. Very often, the placement of exit signs is calculated to be use before an emergency…to help people plan ahead. There’s no reason to suspect that the use of exit signs above eye level have not been helpful. The emerging issue, however, addresses the need to go behind minimal safety standards. Just as illuminated aisle lights in a plane are designed to be useful ‘signage’ for someone who is crawling on their knees to safety. So is the issue of signs at crawl level an interesting aspect of enhanced use of exit signs for safety.

Called “floor proximity” exit markings or signs, these low-level safety signs are going to become standard, experts predict. So far, the IBC has gone far enough to add new language to make floor proximity signs a part of future building codes…especially in high rises. This same attitude of starting with newly constructed high rises is reflected in two American states…so far. Rhode Island may be a small state but it’s looking ahead (and up), by requiring the same thing as New York. These are undoubtedly the first of many states due to adopt the IBC goal.

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