The primary goal in any building evacuation is the protection of people, and while the nature of threats to occupants within buildings have changed, safety practises in old constructions have not kept pace, leading to tragic consequences, such as those seen in the Bank of Lisbon fire in Johannesburg in 2018.

Research indicates that more than 70% of people will not notice a building’s conventional exit signs in an emergency, making it essential for architects and building managers to consider the safest evacuation strategies for commercial, residential and academic buildings.

Diversification of risk

Commercial buildings must not only be prepared for the possibility of a fire because they face newer threats – including terrorism, civil unrest and extreme weather. This requires more rigorous evacuation planning than may have been required in the past.

The process of evacuation can also be more challenging for buildings that are large, have complicated layouts, or are occupied by large numbers of people who are unfamiliar with escape routes and procedures. Some buildings are also likely to be more 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 and 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 all modern buildings has inexorably changed. Fortunately, technology has advanced to offer fire prevention devices and adaptive evacuation methods that can mitigate the consequences of an incident, or prevent it happening altogether.

To address the shortcomings of static signage, new forms of escape guidance systems are available, improving the visual recognition of exit routes and providing 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.

If these installations – preventative or reactive – had been installed in more buildings, 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 building 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 they face in the built environment.

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