If the lights go out...

January 1, 2007
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Safety for office workers who occupy the commercial high-rises of New York City is a key issue that led the NYC Council to amend existing building code laws.

The New York City Council working in conjunction with the Department of Buildings amended Local Law 26 of 2004, “Legislation To Improve Building Safety.” This legislation is part of an initiative to improve safety in the wake of the 9/11 tragedies and the summer blackout in August 2003.

Emergency evacuation

Following the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, a World Trade Center Task Force was formed, which made recommendations that influenced the new building code amendments. It is not widely known that the WTC had installed photoluminescent, a.k.a. glow-in-the-dark, safety markings following the February 26, 1993, bombing in the parking garage. The continuous photoluminescent (PL) markings provided an emergency evacuation pathway guidance system.

Survivors of 9/11 reported seeing photoluminescent stripes on the stairs, railings and stairwell doors — an improvement the Port Authority made following the 1993 bombing. One survivor said, “All you had to do was follow those yellow-green stripes. They were wonderful. The stripes were especially valuable when the emergency stairs stopped and people had to travel horizontally through mechanical equipment spaces that had many doors.”

Effective July 1, 2006, all New York City commercial buildings (Occupancy group E – high-rise buildings) were required to have exit path markings conforming to a newly formed Reference Standard 6-1. All existing commercial high-rise buildings needed to have retrofit work done and affidavits filed with the DOB by that date.

What to consider

The new laws have presented numerous challenges to commercial high-rise building owners and managers. There are many considerations to be made before installing photoluminescent materials. While the following considerations apply directly to New York City, they can benefit any organization that is ready to improve worker safety through installation of PL markings.

What is required? Class E commercial high-rise building owners will have needed to install low-level emergency evacuation way-finding markings on doors leading to emergency stairs, on stairwell walls and on handrails; they are required to mark stair steps, paths around potential hazards and obstructions (e.g., stand pipes), and install directional signage where the direction of exit is not clear.

What is your stairwell’s existing lighting? Present building codes call for a minimum of two-foot candles as the minimum lighting level measured on the floor in exit stairs. Most buildings provide more. However photoluminescent materials will not charge adequately using incandescent light sources. Fluorescent lighting is best to properly charge PL markings.

Another consideration relates to buildings using motion sensor activating light switches that turn lights on when someone enters a stairwell. These have proliferated as an energy-saving device. Motion sensors can no longer be used, as they will prevent the continuous ambient light needed to charge the PL.

Walls and floors both require PL markings. Walls will need solid and continuous PL markings — a continuous stripe of PL running along the wall surface that evacuees can follow. Therefore, the condition and texture of the walls becomes an important issue to consider. Different wall and floor surfaces may require different methods of attaching the PL materials.

Stair treads, stair landings and intermediate platforms must be marked. What are your buildings’ steps constructed of? Common materials found are concrete, wood and metal. The Reference Standard calls for the entire width of the tread to be marked, or a side edge marking option can be used.

Stairway handrails must be marked. Does your building have circular pipe style; are they wooden, metal or irregularly shaped? The law provides an option for mounting PL on the adjacent wall surface in lieu of the handrails themselves.

Prep work. Irrespective of the surface where PL markings are to be mounted, preparation work must be done in order to properly attach the markings to ensure they stay properly fixed to the wall, floors, stairs or doors. Building managers must closely inspect the existing conditions to determine if work needs to be performed prior to attaching the materials. Cleaning and other preparation is necessary to ensure a reliable attachment if adhesives are used.

Manpower. Who will install your property’s PL markings? Property managers may be able to install PL systems using their own building’s maintenance staff. Depending upon the size and scope of the building, property managers with portfolios of numerous buildings may decide to hire a professional installation firm specifically trained to install PL materials. Some photoluminescent companies offer all-inclusive services of surveying the buildings and providing a complete assessment of their PL needs, installation services and verification of compliance through preparation of affidavits to be filed with the DOB. Companies may also offer a maintenance program. A formal log must be maintained on the premises for inspection by the DOB and fire department.

Other safety considerations

The World Trade Center Task Force has made several additional recommendations to improve building safety beyond photoluminescent markings, many of which have been incorporated into the amendments to Local Law 26.

Sprinklers. All commercial buildings 100 feet and higher must be fully sprinkler-equipped within 15 years. The compliance date for completion of installation and certification is July 1, 2019.

Additional signage where egress path not clear. All commercial buildings must install illuminated exit signs in stairs with horizontal extensions and transfer levels. Wall signs are required to be mounted where re-entry doors are recessed or around corners. Wall signs are required to be installed where re-entry is restricted for more than four floors.

Exit sign power source. All high-rise buildings 75 feet and higher must provide an alternate power source for existing illuminated exit signs. This can be a battery pack or generator.

Scissor stairs. In all high-rise office buildings where stairs serve a floor greater than 10,000 square feet, the exit stairs are prohibited from sharing a common wall, floor, ceiling, etc., where these two stairs are required to be remote.

Fire tower option. All buildings, regardless of height or occupancy may utilize fire towers in lieu of interior stairs or exterior stairs as a method of emergency evacuation egress.

Regardless of where your building is located, be prepared for power failure, fire and smoke conditions. Photoluminescent, glow-in-the-dark safety markings save lives.

Sidebar: Show me the way

The need to evacuate a building can occur for many reasons: fires, blackouts, power failures and other public emergencies. When an evacuation of a building occurs in darkness or in a smoke condition, the evacuation becomes more difficult and dangerous. People become disorientated in the dark, and evacuees may actually go in the wrong direction away from the proper emergency exit and become trapped. This is a major cause of fire fatalities.

In the event of a fire, smoke greatly reduces visibility. Even if emergency or normal lighting is operating perfectly, the smoke can hinder the clear path to exits. Photoluminescent signs and markers save lives in the following ways:
  1. When lights suddenly go out, a person in an inner room can easily see the exit door sign and emergency exit door handle.
  2. Walls marked with photoluminescent bands (stripes) show the way out.
  3. Photoluminescent bands and arrows show the direction of an exit. Exit doors can be surrounded by a photoluminescent band; leave non-exit doors unmarked so as not to confuse evacuees.
  4. On stairs, striping illuminates the stairs; arrows point to the direction of outside exits.
  5. At ground level, low-level way-finding markers show exits marked with arrows pointing to exit doors; other photoluminescent bands surround and illuminate emergency exit signs. Markers and arrows can be placed low so that in a smoke condition evacuees can crawl to safety (as smoke rises) while following the low-level arrows and markers.
  6. A photoluminescent exit route plan shows the nearest emergency exit and alternative emergency routes.
  7. In industrial facilities, ladders can be marked with photoluminescent materials; glow-in-the-dark stripes lead evacuees to the main emergency exit routes.
  8. Fire extinguishers and fire hoses can be identified with glow-in-the dark signs.


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