The International Fire Code: Using it to Address Evacuation Safety

The ultimate test of a building’s evacuation safety is a real evacuation. But that’s not the way to find out that your building needs improvements to its vertical exit enclosures (referred to here as “enclosures”). Problems in enclosures that become apparent after evacuations are often revealed at the expense of injuries or fatalities, which result in lawsuits against building owners. That’s why most building owners take a proactive approach to evacuation safety, implementing International Fire Code (IFC) safety guidelines for enclosures.

Created by the International Code Council (ICC) to regulate the construction quality, structural stability, and egress safety of commercial and residential R1 buildings that contain occupancy above 75 feet from the lowest level of fire vehicle access, the IFC’s guidelines for enclosures include the placement of luminescent egress markings and luminescent safety signs at strategic points, a combination the reveals an enclosure’s dimensions and instructs evacuees how to reach an exit.

Luminescent Egress Markings

The markings are applied to handrails and handrail extensions, the leading edges of steps and landings, potential obstacles, the perimeter of landing areas, and the doorframes and door hardware of exit leading doors. When applied according to IFC guidelines, the markings create an enclosure whose dimensions and equipment remain clearly visible in the darkness, even in the presence of heavy smoke and dust.

Luminescent Safety Signs

There are three types of luminous safety signs for enclosures required by the IFC: building exit signs, which are mounted at building exits; emergency exit symbols, which are mounted on all exit leading doors; and floor identification signs, which are mounted at each floor landing and contain the following information: identification of the stair or ramp, floor level (also in Braille), total number of floors in the enclosure, availability of roof access (for fire department), and the story of and direction toward the building exits.

The Importance of Preventing Egress Jams

Under normal conditions, an egress jam is resolved by its participants patiently waiting for it to dissipate. But egress jams that occur during evacuations typically grow worse as panicked evacuees continue to push ahead. There are numerous things that could lead to pile ups in enclosures, with the inability to judge enclosure dimensions and attain critical evacuation information being the most obvious.

Luminescent markings and signage prevent such problems as described above, while the technology that they replace, emergency backup lighting, often doesn’t. In addition to performing poorly in the presence of thick smoke or dust, backup lighting can also fail, as happened during the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, leaving thousands of building occupants to travel stairwells in the dark. As a result of this debacle, cities and states across the U.S. began adopting the IFC.

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