Is Your Emergency Signage Sending the Right Message?

09/01/2015 | By Janelle Penny

How to keep occupants safe during the worst-case scenario

Emergency signage

Do your occupants know where to go during an emergency? An FM who deals with the ins and outs of a building every day may know where every path leads and every exit ends up, but an employee who works only in one area of the building or a visitor who just happens to be in your facility when an emergency hits likely has no clue.

Protect them from harm and yourself from liability by making sure your emergency signage is accurate, current, and plentiful.

Are You Complying with Code?
In an emergency, someone unfamiliar with your building will likely look for the familiar lit exit sign first. NFPA 101, the National Fire Protection Association’s consensus standard that governs life safety, requires either an internally illuminated sign wired into your emergency power source or a sign that’s either electroluminescent (doesn’t use light bulbs, but still requires power to operate) or self-luminous (relies on a contained illumination source that doesn’t need electricity). Paper signs and arrows won’t cut it – NFPA 101 requires a minimum level of visibility and illumination.

The code also requires doors, passages and stairways that are likely to be mistaken for exits but don’t offer access to the outside to be identified with “No Exit” signs.

Save Time with Pre-Scripted Messaging

When an emergency hits, you don’t want to have to wing it with messaging. Compile a series of easily customizable messages ahead of time that can be updated with instructions or warnings specific to a particular incident. Topics should include:
■     Evacuation
■     Sheltering in place
■     Lockdown
■     Hazmat incident
■     Severe weather
■     Natural disasters that are typical for your location
■     A test message you can use periodically to inspect the system’s functionality, rather than just issuing a false alarm

Remember to ensure any additional signage complies with ADA requirements, which include raised characters and braille, non-glare finish and high contrast for visual characters and pictograms, and international symbols to indicate certain kinds of accommodations. The guidelines mandate that tactile characters on signs are located at least 48 inches off the floor and that signs next to doors are posted alongside the door on the latch side. This ensures people with vision impairments know where to look for tactile signage they can read.

In addition to these basic requirements, additional mandates may apply to your facility depending on its unique exposures and risks, adds Donna Lynch, a senior consultant for Antea Group, an environment, health and safety management consulting firm.

“Not all facilities have an AED, but if they do, typically those have signage,” explains Lynch. “Not all facilities have hazardous chemicals, but if they do, there are regulatory requirements regarding signage for storage areas or places where those chemicals are used. Confined spaces also have separate signage requirements per OSHA. That’s related to emergency response – if you have a fire in a manufacturing facility, signage about where the oxygen and other compressed gases are stored would be very important not only to employees, but also any firefighters or emergency services coming on-site.”

Wall-mounted evacuation plans can be supplemented by – or even replaced with – paper versions that can serve as portable maps in case of emergency, notes Dr. Denise Walker, Chief Emergency Management Officer for Lone Star College in Houston. Make sure to check regularly that a map is on the wall at all times.

“Fire marshals today prefer something simple that occupants can snatch off of the wall. They can take it with them and follow the map to wherever they need to go,” explains Walker. “On that map, you need to show the locations of AED devices, other emergency-related devices, exits, and pathways to those exits, both primary and alternate. You also need to note a point of refuge for people who have impairments and need help evacuating. For example, would they go into a stairwell for that? If so, is there a phone at that landing to call for help?”

Investigate Digital Solutions
Adding dynamic digital displays to your emergency signage can add an extra layer of safety to your emergency communication. TV screens and wall-mounted signs controlled by a central computer can push out a message across a campus or large building in seconds, instantly delivering the information occupants need to stay safe. When it comes to huge spaces where the audience is constantly changing, a handful of well-placed digital displays can get your message out quickly and efficiently. Large spaces benefit from signage in a central location, and Walker also recommends posting digital signage near points of egress.

“I would be looking at going above and beyond with extra signage in places like arenas, event centers, or airports – anywhere you have masses of people,” notes Lynch. “Another time you should consider extra communication around emergency response is when you’re making changes. Something happening in your building is atypical, like a renovation, and now a frequently used pathway isn’t available or the normal flow people are used to is prohibited while activities are happening that increase risk.”

Beyond large open areas, Lone Star adds digital displays near loading docks and traffic junctions to disseminate information to people on the go. The system also incorporates desktop push-outs – digital missives that appear automatically on computers and mobile devices and can’t be dismissed without the device user opening and reading them.

“If there’s an emergency, LoneStarAlert has the capability push out anything from a little pop-up in the corner

that will flash until you look at it to a message that completely takes over whatever is on the screen,” says Walker. “You want to push messages out quickly and with clear instructions on what action a person should take.”

Florida State University uses a similar strategy with their FSU Alert Emergency Notification System, a hybrid network of mass notification products that includes desktop pop-ups and wall-mounted beacons that flash lights, emit sirens, and display LED messages that can be read from up to 15 feet away.

This sophisticated network likely saved lives during a November 2014 active shooter incident at the university – the campus police department was able to send a pre-programmed warning message to the entire 473-building campus within two and a half minutes of the first gunshot. Three people were injured before the gunman was killed on the scene by police, but the incident could have been much worse without the immediate safety notification.

The pre-scripted warning message likely saved valuable time for the dispatcher who activated the “dangerous situation” alarm with the touch of a button. Walker recommends developing a series of possible scenarios customized to your facility and geographic location that you can draw on during incidents.

“Ideally, your message will fit into 90 characters for text messaging, tickers, and social media platforms like Twitter. If you stay below 90 characters, you’re more likely to get your message out in one text instead of having any headers or footers push it into two,” explains Walker. “Add a few more words and characters and you can push that message out to other social media, like Facebook. Any message under a maximum of 50 words can be sent via email or pushed out on your website. With a couple of clicks, you can automatically target all kinds of different devices.”

Reinforce Readability
Whether static or dynamic, emergency signage must be decipherable by everyone who sees it – not just the employees working in your office every day, but also guests, customers, and people who might be in your building after hours (think cleaning staff). Make sure signage and pre-programmed messages cover these three needs.

1) Language diversity and simplicity. Even people who are comfortable speaking English as a second language may have a difficult time with comprehension during the panic of a real emergency. Having an emergency message available in their first language could save valuable seconds during an evacuation or shelter in place scenario.

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