Is Your Emergency Signage Sending the Right Message?

Aug. 24, 2015

How to keep occupants safe during the worst-case scenario.

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.


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 [email protected] is Senior Editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.

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