The primary goal in any building evacuation is the protection of people. While the nature of threats to occupants within buildings have changed, safety practises in old constructions have often stood still and throughout our recent history there have been well documented examples of building evacuations which have not gone according to plan, leading to tragic consequences.

Recent research indicates that more than 70 per cent of people will not notice a building’s conventional exit signs in an emergency and therefore future planners need to consider a range of different factors to ensure the safest evacuation of the commercial and residential buildings they are responsible for.

Diversification of risk

In contemporary times commercial buildings must not only be prepared for the possibility of a fire but also newer threats - including terrorism, civil unrest and extreme weather. This requires more rigorous evacuation planning for those commercial buildings affected than may have been required in the past.

The process of evacuation can also be more challenging for buildings that are large, complicated in their layout, or occupied by large numbers of people, who are unfamiliar with escape routes and procedures. Some buildings are also more likely to be affected by an emergency than others, particularly if they have a higher risk of being targeted by terrorists or are fitted with old electrical products and engineering.

Characteristics like these may require evacuation procedures or technologies that are more sophisticated. Studies into prominent incidents as well as academic research into crowd behaviour during emergencies, have identified scope for improvement in the way evacuations are managed. A common finding is that panic, congestion and difficulty in locating safe exits can inhibit the process of evacuation.

One of the most important findings is that static exit signs may not be noticed or indeed acted upon. Research has indicated that only 38% of people ‘see’ conventional exit signs in presumed emergency situations when they are in an unfamiliar environment. Conventional exit signs are unable to adjust their guidance or direction according to changing circumstances or real-time dangers such as blocked exit routes. . This is a potentially significant weakness given the diversification of threats facing complex buildings and the ways in which these threats can escalate in real time.

Technology is crucial for all buildings, new and old

The nature of risk in modern buildings – whether commercial or residential (or of high occupancy or low) – has inexorably changed. Fortunately, technology has advanced whereby fire prevention devices and adaptive evacuation methods can mitigate the consequences of an incident or stop it happening altogether.

According to recent figures 25% of all fires in Europe every year are caused by an electrical defect, so it is encouraging to know that arc fault detection devices (AFDDs) exist to combat the ‘secret threat’ posed by instances of electric micro lightning that can build up in wiring. This is an example of modern innovation that can prevent a fire before it even starts – avoiding the need for an evacuation scenario entirely.

To address the issued posed by static signage new forms of escape guidance systems are now being introduced to improve visual recognition of exit routes and provide greater flexibility in the routing of building occupants. Adaptive exit lighting and dynamic exit signage can direct occupants to an alternative exit point, and adaptive systems enable continuous adjustments of exit route guidance in line with the location or nature of the hazard.

Through these installations – preventative or reactive – a number of incidents reported in the last few years could certainly have been avoided or better managed. There is no one-size fits all approach when it comes to buildings safety but these new technologies can complement traditional evacuation best practises to ensure people in both older and newer buildings are protected against the diverse threats we see today.