A case for exceeding emergency lighting standards

New high-performance emergency lighting solutions create opportunities to maintain constant lighting output longer.


Learning Objectives:

  1. Understand emergency lighting code requirements, including the National Electrical Code (NEC), OSHA Code of Federal Regulation, NFPA 101, and NFPA 70. 
  2. Name the key considerations when specifying emergency lighting and identify the serious ramifications of emergency shortcomings through examples of emergency situations affected by emergency lighting.
  3. Address the benefits of LED emergency lighting options. 

Quality emergency lighting in health care facilities helps ensure visitors, patients, and staff safely exit the building during an emergency. Emergency lighting also enables easier navigation through buildings for first responders. Courtesy: Acuity BrandsAccording to the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), emergency lighting standards seek to provide visual conditions—particularly in areas where the public and workers have access—that make safe and timely evacuation possible while simultaneously curtailing panic.

Despite these standards, every year thousands of Americans perish, and many more suffer personal injuries, in building emergencies ranging from fires and explosions to blackouts and collapses caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and terrorist attacks.

When a disaster strikes, the simple priority for emergency lighting is to deliver constant quality output lighting for as long as needed to evacuate the building and to help first responders safely enter and navigate the building.

Seeing is believing, and surviving

Consider one of the most tragic events in recent U.S. history: the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001. The 9-11 Commission discovered that emergency lighting systems failed during the attacks, which left victims struggling to escape in stairwells filled with smoke and darkness. More than 2,500 people lost their lives.

In the U.S., fires alone caused 3,005 civilian deaths, 17,500 civilian injuries, and $11.7 billion in property damage in 2011.

But disaster-related injuries and deaths are not limited to building occupants. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), nearly 70,000 firefighters suffered injuries on the job in 2011. And while poor emergency lighting is only one factor, it could dramatically impact first responders’ ability to quickly and safely reach victims in unfamiliar surroundings—placing both first responders and civilians at risk.

Exceeding code standards

By design, most building occupants—residents, employees, customers, students, patients, visitors—are rarely, if ever, aware of the emergency precautions taken on their behalf, let alone the codes and regulations behind those measures. The standards exist to ensure their safety, including recommendations for specific luminaires such as exit signs and other sources of guidance, as well as for the installation, operation, and testing of these products. In addition, the standards address design principles that account for optimal placement, energy use, and possibility of electrical supply failure during emergencies.

Building owners and managers, architects, engineers, designers, contractors, and maintenance personnel are fully aware of their obligation to specify luminaires, exit signs, and related safety devices that meet—or exceed—emergency lighting standards. Specifically, a combination of local and national codes, including the National Electrical Code (NEC), OSHA Code of Federal Regulation, NFPA 101, and NFPA 70, has been developed and implemented to help protect the general public in times of disaster.

The majority of these codes effectively address important lighting needs during an emergency. High-performance emergency lighting provides the opportunity to increase the safety of all building occupants during emergency situations by delivering the best quality lighting for an extended period of time. Additionally, there are several key considerations when specifying emergency lighting that help exceed code standards and ensure a safe environment for building occupants: 

  1. Emergency lighting should be energized by a connection independent of the general lighting in the space. Use lighting that features options with multiple battery packs for maximum remote capacity and run time.
  2. The design of egress, including the number and placement of emergency lights, must enable the prompt escape of building occupants. Thus, the placement of emergency lighting should be planned to foster an optimally illuminated escape route to create a safer atmosphere, rather than to create a cost-efficient design.
  3. Codes specify when and for how long emergency lighting must illuminate a building when an emergency occurs. Selecting emergency lighting systems that provide enhanced visibility and constant high output LED lighting for longer than the required timeframe could increase the likelihood of a safe rescue and/or escape.
  4. Maximum and minimum illumination foot-candles are outlined in codes. Choosing the maximum illumination with features such as refractive optics that provide high and uniform light levels ensures clear vision.
  5. Select emergency lighting loads that are automatically energized or re-energized within 10 seconds of the electrical power outage—and that stay energized for at least 90 minutes or for the anticipated time of the building evacuation.

The ideal emergency lighting solution supports the safe and speedy exit of building occupants and provides on-scene organizers and first responders with the best possible light levels, not just for the first few minutes, but well beyond.

Call to action

High-performance long-life LED emergency lighting with quality battery options, both of which contain built-in redundancies, assures dependable operation. Courtesy: Acuity Brands/Lithonia LightingHigh-performance LED emergency lighting fixtures on the market today not only meet but also exceed minimum emergency lighting code requirements. As with all lighting decisions, cost, ease of installation, maintenance, disposal, and replacement are key factors to consider in the decision-making process. However, the ability of new emergency lighting solutions to increase lighting quality and safety, and minimize the risk of negative outcomes also must be factored into the equation.

For example, new high-performance, long-life LEDs with quality battery options—both of which contain built-in redundancies—assure dependable operation for 90 minutes and beyond. Where many emergency lighting units experience decreasing light levels, new light engine technology continues to illuminate passageways at a constant high output level that exceeds code requirements and produces brighter illumination than traditional incandescent options.

The opportunity for added safety places allows building owners to develop a strong return on investment that actually exceeds code standards with a payback of increased peace of mind.

If even a single life can be saved or an injury averted due to an emergency lighting solution that shines brighter, clearer, and longer, the decision to exceed specification requirements can be easily justified.

Scott Galentine is Lithonia Lighting Value Stream Manager – General Purpose Emergency Products at Acuity Brands. He is responsible for sales, marketing, and product development. During his time with the company, he has achieved three product family launches, consisting of seven unique products. 

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