In some buildings, egress safety isn’t reassessed for years at a time, a scenario that could lead to serious safety issues with a building’s vertical exit enclosures, the long stairwells that building occupants use to evacuate during fires, blackouts, earthquakes and other emergencies. In many cases, these safety issues aren’t the result of deterioration or poor maintenance, but of leaving something in place that wasn’t safe to begin with, such as emergency backup lighting.
Backup Lighting Vs. Photoluminescent Signs and Markings
Emergency backup lighting is the primary safety measure in vertical exit enclosures that were constructed before the millennium, a time when photoluminescent technology was still improving in brightness and duration of illumination. While backup lighting is better than nothing, when surrounded by thick smoke, it becomes like a headlight in the fog, its rays reflecting off airborne particles instead of illuminating its surroundings. Photoluminescence, on the other hand, illuminates using electromagnetic radiation, a safe process that produces a bright glow that doesn’t reflect off airborne particles.
Unlike backup lighting, photoluminescent markings aren’t intended to “illuminate” their surroundings. Instead, they outline them in the form of luminescent grip tape, with strips placed on handrails and handrail extensions, the leading edges of steps and landings, the doorframes and hardware of exit leading doors, egress path obstacles and the perimeter of landing areas. With the tape in place, what emerges is an exit enclosure that has its foremost egress elements prominently identified. And, unlike backup lighting, the markings never fail due to broken bulbs or faulty wiring.
Applying Photoluminescent Markings in Accordance with the IBC and IFC
The application of luminous path markings is regulated by two official codes: the IBC (International Building Code), which regulates new construction and has been adopted by all 50 states; and the IFC (International Fire Code), which governs new and existing construction and has been adopted by at least 42 states. Both codes apply to commercial and residential buildings that feature occupancy at above 75 feet from the lowest level of fire department vehicle access. Smaller buildings often implement the guidelines for good measure.
While newly constructed buildings in the U.S. follow the codes’ guidelines for markings and signage, older buildings in states that haven’t adopted the IFC often don’t, harboring potentially unsafe vertical exit enclosures. While changing such buildings is ultimately a legislation issue, the buildings’ owners do well to implement the codes’ guidelines on their own. When they do, they receive three major benefits: a maintenance-free, electricity-free safety system that never malfunctions; greater protection against injuries and fatalities in the event of event of low visibility evacuations; and, as a corollary, greater protection against legal action that often occurs in the wake of such happenings.