Networked high-tech sensors to the rescue
Smart lighting and signage could provide emergency information in case of fire
Despite all our best efforts and often those of the employees we train and advise - people have a problem with safety. It can be a hard topic to bring to life, and there’s a fine line between honesty and being accused of scaremongering. Getting people to remember key safety information and best practices is one thing; getting them to value it - and for it to stick long enough to become routine - is another entirely.
Signage and lighting are ways to reinforce this training, and provide a “safety net” for less attentive employees. Yet even these methods can be undermined by poor implementation and fatigue, with posters becoming just another part of the scenery, and lights serving to confuse rather than inform. What smart signage and lighting promise is greater clarity and functionality - reinforcing safety practices and performing a vital service in the event of an emergency.
The role of signage & lighting
You’re likely familiar with the way regular signage and safety lighting both work. Signs help to alert employees and visitors of nearby hazards, which demand a level of caution or preparation. In addition, posters are often deployed to remind people of their daily responsibilities in more complex terms. The contents of posters may not be less important, but it tends to be less urgent, with the goal of reiterating previous training and providing non-time-critical information.
Lighting is a more straightforward factor, and one we’re less likely to think about. Ever-present in our day-to-day lives, lighting is important to properly illuminate spaces, preventing fatigue and highlighting hazards. For many facilities, this now takes the form of LED lighting, which is slowly replacing high wattage metal halide fixtures. LED lights are now widely used for both open area and escape route lighting, highlighting critical exit routes and ensuring that heavy plant and machinery can be used or powered down safely.
While open area lighting, high-risk task area lighting and escape route lighting provide guidance in an emergency, they do not always present clear and intuitive instructions to those unfamiliar with the evacuation plan.
For facility managers and safety coordinators, an increasingly common tool is the Building Management System, or BMS. These complex systems regulate networked technology from across a site, gathering data on the local environment from small, wireless sensors. These low-power devices run on long-life batteries, sending regular packets of data about things like ambient temperature, movement and depleted resources (such as empty soap dispensers or broke fire detectors) to the BMS. The system can then use this wealth of data to intelligently analyze patterns, and either make its own decisions or forward them for review.
One common example of this is temperature sensors, which are regularly being fitted to give a picture of room temperatures throughout a building. This is primarily used for comfort, displaying the current room temperature and allowing for it to be tweaked automatically or remotely. Collecting this data over time also shows where the hottest and coldest parts of a building are, earmarking areas for improvement.
But these sensors are also beginning to be implemented as party of a fire safety system. Consider a scenario in which a fire is raging through a building while employees are still evacuating. Using temperature data, a BMS could infer which parts of the building are worst affected by the fire. This data could be applied in all sorts of ways: from providing information to emergency personnel or employees, to intelligently controlling HVAC and fire suppression systems - perhaps saving equipment in an unaffected room from being drenched by sprinklers.
This technology could soon be used in conjunction with smart lighting and signage. In or around a facility or site, digital signage would ordinarily be used to provide helpful information, and point visitors toward areas of interest. Depending on the system, it might be configured to show rolling news coverage, weather reports or upcoming events. Touchscreen displays can enable visitors and employees to view live information on rooms around the facility, organizing room bookings or hospitality services.
In the event of a fire or similar emergency incident, smart signage and lighting could spring into action. Digital signs can be configured to display either a custom or generic evacuation message, particularly helping those who are hard of hearing.
What’s exciting is how these technologies can react to an emergency and inform the evacuation process. This is where the BMS comes in: using information collected from sensors around the facility, the lighting and signage could point people towards the safest and quickest escape routes, and away from hazardous areas. Security feeds and motion sensors could help to locate anyone still in the facility, and get first responders to them more quickly.
The benefits of automating safety processes in a high-risk scenario are obvious, and facilities around the world stand to gain from these improvements. While there is a risk of complacency as safety tech becomes more effective, technology will always be a fallback, and best practices will continue to be the first line of defense.
As with any safety-critical technology, it is crucial that we obtain guarantees that mistakes will not be made that could risk lives, and so more testing needs to be done. All of the technology to achieve this already exists, however, and it can only be a matter of years before similar systems are saving lives around the world.