Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2019.

Exiting Smarter
 
In a world threatened by active shooters, catastrophic storms, and an array of other non-fire emergencies, some safety experts are advocating for a new approach to emergency exit signage

INTERVIEW CONDUCTED AND EDITED BY ANGELO VERZONI


They’re ubiquitous. Walk into nearly any building open to the public and you’ll see them: white or clear rectangles emblazoned with neon-orange block letters spelling “EXIT.” We’ve been told, since before we can remember, to make note of them.

But in a world increasingly threatened by non-fire emergencies like active shooters and 100-year storms, some experts say it’s time to rethink static traditional exit signs in favor of something more dynamic. One of those experts is Mike Ferreira, a 25-year veteran in the field of fire protection engineering. He currently serves as a vice president at Jensen Hughes and also sits on the technical committee for NFPA 92, Standard for Smoke Control Systems.

The problem with traditional exit signs, Ferreira says, is that people have become so used to them that they go unnoticed. Exit signs have become just another element of the visual stimuli present in buildings—what Ferreira refers to as “visual noise.” It’s similar to how the public began ignoring traditional tonal fire alarms, which created the need to introduce more advanced alarm systems equipped with voice messages or signage that specify what kind of emergency is occurring. “But we stopped there,” Ferreira says. “We told people to get out and why they need to get out, but then it’s up to them to find these exit signs and determine how to leave the building.”

The need for dynamic signage, as it’s called, is present now more than ever, according to Ferreira. Say you have an active shooter in the lobby of a building—you don’t want people following traditional exit signs into that lobby or exiting the same way they came into the building, which would also likely take them through the lobby. Working in sync with a building’s information systems, dynamic signage could place an “X” over the exit signs that route people through the lobby, or they could light a different path to safety. Likewise, in a flood, you might want building occupants to get to higher floors as opposed to guiding them to the ground level like traditional exit signs would—and dynamic signage could provide that unique direction.

Currently, dynamic signage is more common in Europe than it is in the United States, Ferreira says, but he hopes things will change in the coming years. There is research to suggest that such a change wouldn’t be difficult for the public to adapt to. “Some blind studies have shown that 70 percent of people having never seen [dynamic] signage before will still follow the indications given by the signs,” Ferreira says. “So it’s pretty powerful.”

The 2021 edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, will likely include new annex language on dynamic signage, according to Gregory Harrington, NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 101. While making note of the potential benefit of dynamic signage, the proposed language would also serves to caution users of its potential drawbacks, Harrington says, such as the decision-making ability of the individual or algorithm responsible for changing the sign messaging, as well as the liability concerns it creates.

NFPA Journal spoke with Ferreira—who co-authored a presentation on dynamic exit signage that was delivered at the 2019 NFPA Conference & Expo in June—to discuss dynamic exit signage, how he believes it can improve safety, what critics of the concept say, and more.

First off, what is dynamic exit signage?

There are three levels of dynamic signage. The first is just any change to the state of a traditional sign. Normally, exit signs just light up. But if you make it blink, that’s the first level of dynamic signage. Data shows that even a simple action like making it blink will increase the attractiveness of the sign and people will think, “OK, this wasn’t blinking before and now it is, so I better do something.”

What are the other levels?

Level two introduces a series of exit routes, so that if a fire or an active shooter or other dangerous situation exists in one area of a building, you can send people in the other direction. You could put an “X” through the traditional exit signs to tell people “Don’t go this way,” or have illuminated chevrons directing people to a safe exit route. Level two would have a library of preprogrammed solutions or exit routes based on engineering judgment or computer modeling. Level three takes things up a notch by providing a similar series of exit routes but doing it in real time. This would require a fully smart, artificial intelligence–type system that would predict where people should go as the event is happening.

Traditional exit signs have been around for decades and are a tried-and-true component of building safety. Why is dynamic signage even needed?

My position is basically that, today, we’re not concerned solely with fire. In the design of buildings, you have to be concerned with other types of emergency events, whether it’s natural disasters or bomb threats or active shooter events.

So it’s the changing landscape of threats to safety that’s driving the push toward dynamic signage?

Yes. That and the fact that in recent years we’ve done a lot in the way of communicating these hazards in new ways. We’re not just using tonal alarms anymore. We have voice messaging. We have targeted messaging. These new, advanced alarm systems are becoming more common and are now addressed in codes like NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®. So we’ve found new ways to tell people they have to get out and why. But, when it comes to that next step of telling people how to get out, we’re still requiring them to look for those exit signs that have been more or less the same since the 1960s.

Watch a video produced by NFPA Journal on dynamic exit signage. 

And you don’t think they’re effective anymore?

They are certainly still effective, but I think dynamic signage can be more effective. In talking to people about the need for dynamic signage, I’ve been introducing the concept of visual noise. If you’re walking around in a shopping mall, for example, traditional exit signs can be hard to find. They’re like background noise. People are faced with all sorts of signage every day in every building, and exit signs have always been part of that noise. By doing something as simple as making the signs blink—which would be a version of level-one dynamic signage—it can make a difference.

Do you see dynamic signage as the next logical step in improving building safety?

It’s hard to predict if it will happen, but I think it should be the next logical evolution in evacuation, especially in large, complex buildings—even if it’s as simple as taking existing exit signs and making them blink just to increase their visibility.

You mentioned “large, complex buildings.” Is that where dynamic signage has the most potential?

Absolutely. Not every building is that complex. In a hotel, for example, you typically have a simple exit system. It’s one corridor with a set of stairs at either end, and it’s pretty intuitive. You can go one way or the other and you’ll eventually run into a set of stairs. You don’t need very complicated directional signage there. But in a convention center or an airport or a mall, the exits can be quite confusing. And if one exit is blocked—for example, there’s an active shooter incident taking place—you want to send people to another exit. Finding that path may not be very easy in a large, complex building and that’s where dynamic signage can really help.

What’s stopping the use of dynamic signage?

One of the main obstacles to getting these systems in use is liability concerns, especially in the United States with our litigious society. People worry, “What happens if the dynamic signage in my building tells people to go the wrong way and they get hurt or die?” My counterargument to that is, “What happens if you don’t tell them where to go and they walk out an exit path into a dangerous situation and get hurt or die?” There is liability there, too, in my opinion. There is liability connected to all of our building systems, such as sprinklers or fire alarms. I think that should not hold us back from exploring these solutions. And I think companies realize that, and that’s why there are many companies exploring these solutions. The codes just need to catch up.

How far from that do you think we are?

If I had to guess, we’re probably 10 years or so out from dynamic signage being made part of the codes and standards in a big way. What will lead the way is the publication of academic papers and press around the installation of these systems in known structures.

Where do you think that will happen?

Transportation facilities are at the top of my list. This is where emergency notification systems have been revolutionized in recent years. Jensen Hughes was involved in one project, for example, at the Denver International Airport to create a system that displays emergency messaging over all the baggage claim screens and flight arrival and departure screens and other messaging boards throughout the airport. It does a good job of presenting different colors and visuals to distinguish between weather events or fire events or other emergencies. So I could see dynamic signage someday being added to a facility like that to complement its advanced emergency notification system.

The Middle East tends to lead the way in a lot of these technologies. I could definitely see a large airport in the Middle East adopting dynamic signage. Then it might get the attention of other stakeholders around the world.

How do we get there?

More research is key. The European Union is doing a really good job of piloting research projects that have shown the effectiveness of dynamic signage. One European study in 2015, the GETAWAY Project, found that only about a third of people can find traditional exit signs in large, complex buildings in emergency situations, and their ability to detect emergency signage increased by over 100 percent when dynamic signage was used. More work like this is needed to develop the design criteria for dynamic signage systems.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photographs: Getty Images