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Signage and wayfinding for firefighters

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Geoff Wilkinson looks at developments in signage following the Grenfell tragedy

The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy has already led to a number of changes to legislation as the government seeks to act on the multiple safety issues the fire revealed. While cladding has been the focus of scrutiny to date there are a lot of other issues that also need to be addressed, among them, signage and wayfinding for firefighters.

In the evidence from Phase 1 of the inquiry, we heard about the difficulties firefighters faced when repeatedly going into and out of the building. Their efforts were delayed by the building’s poor signage – some floors had no floor numbering at all while others had been handwritten in pen. As a result, firefighters had to pause several times during the operation just to find out which floor they were on as they progressed up the tower. However, even floors with good signage were difficult to identify, due to the density of smoke in the stair. 

Richard Hippel, a firefighter based in Kensington, said the sixth floor was ‘completely filled with smoke, with zero visibility’. He said: ‘I’d never seen smoke like that in a domestic fire and can only say it’s like smoke when tyres burn. It was the first indication I had that this incident was something unusual.’

As a result of the findings of the inquiry, the government is looking to update the guidance on signage and wayfinding in buildings. The call for evidence in November last year asked for ideas about changes to fire safety guidance with a view to improving access and facilities for fire and rescue services. In advance of that further work, the government considers that there are simple changes which could be made now that would have immediate benefits for firefighter safety. Additionally, they would help prevent trips and falls that are more likely to occur during a mass evacuation, especially if panic sets in. This could be provided at relatively low cost but would be an important contribution to building safety. BS 9991 (Fire safety in the design, management and use of residential buildings) already recommends that signage numerically indicating the floor level should be provided within the firefighting stair of blocks of flats. There is, however, no prescribed format, size or design for the signage.

The government is currently considering three options: vinyl lettering; photoluminescent lettering; and emergency powered lighting luminaires. While their considerations are still ongoing, it is my opinion that photoluminescent lettering is the most likely option. 

My reasoning is that vinyl lettering, though cheap, is still unlikely to be effective in a smoke-filled enclosure, and emergency powered lighting luminaires are significantly more expensive than the other options. Taking into account operating costs, requiring powered lighting signage in all blocks of flats in the UK over 11m high would add between £81 million and £121 million a year to costs. Therefore, photoluminescent signage seems the most likely and cost-effective solution and one that architects could incorporate easily on projects that are still in their design and construction phases.

However, this is only part of the discussion, and requirements for improved wayfinding could extend to corridor signage, step and handrail marking and highlighting of key fire safety features, such as call points, extinguishers, and smoke vents. This would bring construction in line with other highly regulated industries, such as nuclear, marine, aviation and military, where photoluminescent signage is already standard. Indeed, it is already standard in the USA in most hotels in large cities. In fact, both the 2009 International Building Code and the International Fire Code require luminous egress path markings that outline the exit path in buildings that have floors more than 75 feet above the lowest level of a fire department vehicle.

Geoff Wilkinson is managing director of Wilkinson Construction Consultants www.thebuildinginspector.org

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