A research effort designed to improve emergency egress
NFPA Journal, March/April 2010
Emergency egress is a fundamental life-safety provision embedded in an array of NFPA codes and standards. Increasingly, the technical committees that develop these documents are broadening their focus in at least two ways: toward expanding the scope of their provisions to deal with emergencies beyond fire, and toward explicit consideration of egress for people with disabilities. Combining these issues presents some unique challenges, challenges that the Foundation has addressed in the past and that we hope to address in our research programs in the near future.
Communication is a key component in studying egress. Over the past several years, the Foundation, through funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has conducted a series of research studies at Victoria University in Australia. The studies are designed to optimize the home smoke alarm signal for high-risk groups, including the elderly, those with mild to moderate hearing impairments, and those under the influence of alcohol. Those studies have concluded that the optimum tone is a mixed T-3 signal that includes both high and low “pitches,” which is now referenced in NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®.
The evolution of NFPA 72 has included a major initiative to further develop emergency communication protocols, expanding them beyond a fire alarm tone to include voice or text messages that can provide people with additional information. The work of the Technical Committee for Emergency Communications Systems has significantly revised the code and added a new Chapter 24 in the 2010 edition to address key questions: What are the right messages and delivery mechanisms for a given type of emergency? For a given stage in that emergency? For a given incident command strategy?
The Foundation has begun a project to assemble existing information that can be used to answer these questions and to refine performance criteria for the next edition of NFPA 72. We hope to link our efforts to those already underway at the DHS and at the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Of course, communication is only one step in the egress process; safe evacuation is the eventual goal. The technical committees for NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, and NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®, are addressing the issue of high-rise egress through the expanded use of elevators for occupant evacuation. Through a task group with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the use of elevators for egress in emergencies and discussions about appropriate performance criteria for the various evacuation aids now on the market, many new concepts are emerging. The Foundation is collaborating with the University of Illinois at Chicago to develop a research program directed at stair descent devices, an important part of this issue. These chairs vary widely in design, and there is no quantified analysis of their performance. Testing methods and initial data are needed to help produce performance-based standards that can be referenced in NFPA codes and standards.
The research discipline that addresses these issues and others associated with the emergency evacuation of occupants from buildings is the study of human behavior in emergencies. The earliest studies in this field, over 40 years ago, explored behavioral response to fire cues.
Since then, the application of this research has found its way into codes and standards through provisions related to stairways and corridors, and into fire-safety engineering design methods through the integration of the concept of required egress time in determining protection requirements. We are just beginning to extend these studies to a more complex problem: the growing segment of our population with disabilities and age-related impairments. With these considerations in mind, I dedicate this column to the memory of a leader in the study of human behavior in fire, the late Dr. Guylène Proulx, senior researcher at the Institute for Research in Construction at the National Research Council of Canada and a longtime friend of NFPA.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E. , FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.