Is Your Emergency Signage Sending the Right Message?

Emergency signage

Not sure which languages to include? Walker suggests looking at which languages are represented in local voting materials – Lone Star College, for example, is in a community with large populations of Spanish and Vietnamese speakers, so those languages need to be included in emergency communications.

“In addition to people whose first language isn’t English, you also want to target those who are unable to read at a sixth grade level, which involves modifying and shortening messages so that more people understand what you’re trying to say,” Walker says. “Pictograms and universal symbols are increasingly common.”

2) Accessibility. In addition to the ADA requirements for posted signage, also consider making braille versions of emergency handouts available to stakeholders ahead of time so they can process the information before it’s needed.

3) Visibility. Not all people with vision impairments are completely blind – they may instead suffer from color blindness or poor eyesight. Make your emergency signage easier to decipher by relying on high-contrast colors and avoiding colorful art that someone who is color-blind may not be able to distinguish.

Emergency Communication Dos and Don’ts

Adhere to the 3x9x27 rule. Tickers and other digital signage should stick to three topics during an emergency – “What is the event, what instructions do I follow, and where do I go for more information?” explains Dr. Denise Walker, Chief Emergency Management Officer for Houston-based Lone Star College. Each of the three topics should use nine words or less so the entire message can be delivered in no more than 27 words. Platforms that can handle longer messages, such as Facebook, should still feature no more than 50 words for brevity’s sake.

Watch your character count. Twitter can handle up to 140 characters, but try to avoid going over 90, Walker recommends. “A lot of carriers attach headers and footers to messages. If you stay within 90 characters, you’re more likely to keep your message contained within one text instead of spilling over into multiple messages.”

Keep it concise. “Multiple texts can be a problem,” Walker says. “Depending on the system, you might get the second message before the first. If there’s a delay, people may be confused as to what you’re trying to say.”

Standardize messaging across platforms. The same message you used for Twitter and texting works for voicemail too, but make sure you repeat the location at the beginning and end of the message so no one misses it. “A lot of time, when people pick up a mobile device, they may miss the first couple words,” Walker notes. “If the first couple of words are the location, you may confuse people and generate more calls to your dispatch center.”

Practice. Test the system regularly and make it a part of fire or lockdown drills, Walker recommends.

Assume every area is covered. Walker once inspected a K-12 institution in Texas that did a great job indicating points of egress and ensuring comprehensive security camera coverage, but forgot to include the loading dock in the drill.

 “This lockdown drill was the first ever for this school, and what we saw was quite alarming,” says Walker. “There was an individual who was hearing-impaired out there. No one was around and he didn’t have a cell phone. He had no idea it was going on. It was obvious he knew something was happening because there was no activity around him, but he didn’t know what action to take. It wasn’t until the exercise was over that he realized it was a lockdown drill and he was supposed to take cover. Had he been in an actual emergency situation, he may have been injured or killed because the loading dock was a point of entry. That’s the danger of not having adequate signage.”

Skimp on language translation. One school realized many parents couldn’t read their English-only announcements, so they decided to take some initiative and use free online translation tools to tailor their messages to their audience. There was just one problem – automated tools can’t assess intent.

 “They learned the hard way that when you say drill in English and run it through a free translation tool, you end up with the Spanish word for hammer. The message made no sense whatsoever,” Walker says. “It’s imperative that you’re sensitive when you deliver messages in multiple languages. It may cost you a few dollars to hire a language service, but it’s worth it. Some areas also have free language banks – Houston, for example, has a language bank that will convert emergency messages at no cost into more than 120 languages.”

Neglect stairwells. High-rise buildings in particular are vulnerable to inadequate signage in this area. “When you’re in a stairwell, is there a sign telling me which floor I can go back out on?” Walker asks. “I may not be able to go from level 3 to level 5 – I might have to get out on 6 instead.”

Is Your Facility Prepared?
Don’t wait until a threat is looming to review your signage. The sooner you can assess whether your current setup is viable, the better.

Conduct a thorough walkthrough of your facility to check for risk. Try to look at your building through the eyes of an occupant or guest.

“Look at where you have people working, but also consider places that aren’t typically work areas or where something temporary is happening,” says Lynch. “One thing we run into often is a lack of signage on doorways or closed doors where someone wouldn’t know whether the door leads to an actual exit or another room. When we conduct audits, one of the things we look at is whether it’s apparent where someone would go to find a stairwell or exit the building.”

Keep an eye out for any rooms that aren’t marked, Lynch adds. They may not contain anything dangerous, but you don’t want an occupant mistaking a storage room for an exit door or a place to shelter when seconds count.

“FMs who take a critical eye and think like an occupant or visitor could probably identify many of these problems themselves,” says Lynch. “They know their buildings better than anyone coming in. Outside observers can provide a fresh set of eyes – we may look at things more critically than someone who sees the building every day.”

When you inspect exit doors and routes, take a minute to examine egress on the other side as well, Lynch recommends. At each door, imagine someone with a mobility impairment is trying to escape the building – could they safely get away from the building if they used that door?

“We had one client who had a 4- by 4-foot cement pad you would land on when you exited the doorway, but beyond it was a grass area with a hill,” Lynch explains. “The occupancy was a senior living facility and some of the tenants used wheelchairs. They were supposed to get up this hill to get away from the building.”

Areas where hazardous chemicals are stored or potentially dangerous equipment is used should have warning signs, as should temporary hazards such as construction areas or stairwells that are temporarily out of service. Keep track of them – as well as the locations of all other signage – on a map or in a computerized work order system so it’s easy to go back and inspect them regularly in the future. This is especially important for lit exit signs and other emergency signage where periodic inspections are mandatory.

“Emergency lighting and signage should be incorporated in your routine inspections of the entire facility,” says Lynch. “Have a way to verify that you have actually checked all of them – there are so many clients who just do it ad hoc or assume they checked something. A lot of people don’t do the required functional testing, so make sure that’s part of your preventive maintenance plan – it’s crucial.”

Janelle Penny is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

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