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How building safety has evolved through the years

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From the creation of the iconic ‘green running man’ to a new generation of advanced technology driving the sector into the future, Anthony Martindale, field product manager, lighting, at Eaton, examines the evolution of building safety.

In 1979, Yukio Ota entered and won a competition held by a Japanese fire safety association with his newly created ‘green running man’ design. The graphic designer’s winning entry went on to be adopted as the international standard ISO 7010 in the 1980s – becoming one of the most well-recognised emergency lighting icons globally.

While this ‘green running man’ may be considered an iconic and unchanging element of building safety, it’s more or less the only element that hasn’t evolved dramatically in the last 30-40 years. Buildings have become increasingly complex, and potential safety threats have also evolved. In addition to traditional threats such as fire and flooding, newer threats to safety – from power outages to terrorist attacks – must also be considered now.

Fortunately, technological advances and industry innovation have revolutionised the sector in recent decades, leading to a rapidly expanding range of advanced technologies that are fit to combat the changing nature of risk in buildings today.

Innovation driven by disaster

Since the creation of the ‘green running man’, emergency lighting has evolved into a sophisticated industry – constantly refining existing technology and innovating to drive building safety suitable for today’s complex world of growing threats. Inevitably, its learning has been informed and accelerated by landmark events. High-profile tragedies, from the 1987 fire at London’s King’s Cross underground station to 2013’s Nairobi Westgate Mall terror attack, have sharpened the focus on making emergency wayfinding and evacuation faster, simpler and more effective.

The resulting innovation in emergency lighting has touched everything, from luminaires to test systems. For instance, advances with LEDs have led to increased luminaire lifetimes, a reduction in required luminaire size and luminaire optimisation for emergency design. However, beyond these advances, recent years have seen even more innovative and exciting developments take place.

Architects, specifiers, consultants and building owners are increasingly turning to these innovative solutions to make their spaces as safe as possible. Beyond the need to protect their building occupants, these advanced safety solutions also provide peace of mind for those responsible for the safe infrastructure of public and commercial buildings, given the risk of six-figure fines and even imprisonment if they get it wrong.

Enabling faster and safer evacuations

The evacuation of commercial buildings can be slowed by people’s failure to recognise standard emergency exit signs. This is exacerbated in buildings where people are unfamiliar with the layout, such as shopping centres, stadia and airports.

Innovative increased affordance technology tackles this challenge by making signs much more visible to occupants during an emergency evacuation. While individuals often automatically exit the way they entered a building, the increased affordance functionality ensures exit signs draw people to their nearest exit instead by flashing or pulsing, but never dipping below industry required luminance standards.

The development of adaptive signage is another key industry innovation. The danger posed by fires, acts of terrorism and natural disasters will frequently change as the event unfolds. As a result, static signage may no longer be showing the most appropriate exit route during the emergency, as the fire spreads or a terrorist moves around a building. Dynamic adaptive signage that can change can solve this issue, steering people away from unsafe escape routes and showing an alternative exit route instead. Fully adaptive signs can both change to indicate a new escape route, but also revert to their original state when it is safe to do so.

The danger of ‘standing still’

Sadly, both small- and large-scale disasters are still all too common, due to non-compliant and substandard emergency lighting. Ultimately, the advanced technologies now available will only save lives if used. Those responsible for the safe infrastructure of buildings risk endangering lives if they do not evolve to keep up as buildings and risk factors change.

The industry has come a long way since the creation of the ‘green running man’. It will continue innovating to improve evacuation still further and save more lives. However, the onus is now on building owners, specifiers, facilities managers and electrical contractors to make the most of the new generation of advanced technology available today to better protect building occupants. There’s no room for cutting corners when it comes to protecting life and property

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