Does "Up to Code" Mean Up to Snuff?

Emergency lighting expert urges building owners to go beyond code.

Most commercial buildings meet current safety codes for exit and emergency lighting. But does that make them safe? Given the recent state of catastrophic fires in the United States, that answer may be "No." According to one industry expert, existing codes do not begin to reflect the state of the art in building safety.

"Current technology has far surpassed many state and local codes," said Robert P. Cross, president of Mule Lighting Inc., Providence, R.I. He urges business owners to be proactive and go beyond minimum code requirements in making their buildings as safe as possible.

"Many building owners and facility managers I speak with want to do everything they can to maximize safety at their locations, but don't know where to begin," Cross explained. For these companies, Cross offers a number of specific suggestions:

LED Exit Signs: Exit signage is required by code above all doorways, corridors and other exits. But in the case of fire, smoke rising to the ceiling can often block these signs. Consider installing additional exit signage at floor level, suggests Cross. The National Fire Protection Association recommends mounting these low level signs between 6 and 8 inches from the floor. Cross also suggests that emergency signage "speak" the same language as occupants: if your workers or clientele are predominately Spanish-speaking, additional exit signs that read "SALIDA" can be installed.

Alternative lighting sources can provide long-lasting, energy-efficient emergency lighting and signage that offer solid-state reliability and require less maintenance and less battery draw from back-up sources. According to Cross, exit signs that employ light emitting diodes (LEDs) as a light source have a significantly longer life span than conventional lights such as incandescent or fluorescent and present less chance of failing at a critical time. In addition, the use of LED lights provides uniform illumination, which testing has shown increases visibility and readability.

"Smart" Emergency Lighting: State-of-the-art technology offers several "smart" options for emergency lighting and exit signs, Cross explains. Safety product maintenance can be a time-consuming and expensive part of an operation, with codes requiring system testing every 30, 60 or 90 days. Self-diagnostic features available today monitor battery voltage, lamp continuity, incoming utility power and unit performance every 10 seconds, alerting you to a component problem almost immediately.

Sprinkler Systems: While installing sprinkler systems can be a large capital expense, the peace of mind and safety benefits they provide offer a significant return on investment. Also, most insurance companies offer discounted premiums to establishments with sprinkler systems meaning initial investment can often be recouped in just a few years.

LED Pathway Lighting & Step Lighting: Movie theaters are an excellent example of where to use pathway and step lighting to safely exit people from a dark room. Equipping your business with such features increases the chance that people will be able to exit the premises safely.

Ballast Switches: Ballast switches essentially turn everyday fluorescent lighting into emergency lighting. Emergency ballasts are compact battery packs that snap into your existing fixtures. If power fails, each ballast will provide 90 to 120 minutes of emergency run time for either one or two lamps. When installed along corridors or other key escape paths, this lighting affords occupants invaluable visibility to exit safely.

Information: No matter how many safety features you have in place, none is more powerful than an informed public, Cross emphasizes. Periodically instruct personnel on safety features and protocols, including the location of all building exits. Run drills when necessary. Inform patrons of exits and escape paths, either verbally as they enter your establishment or graphically with printed escape maps in highly visible locations.

Cross warns that businesses can go a long way toward ensuring the safety of their employees and customers, but individuals must also be vigilant. When entering an establishment, people should Scan and Plan Scan the building to locate all exits, and mentally Plan your escape in case of emergency.

A good way to evaluate your current safety program, or implement a new one, is with the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) 101 Life Safety Codes. An excerpt from these codes, as well as links to other helpful safety information, is now available at

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