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January 4, 2011

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Internal work environment – Signs of life

Philip Ball explores the need for strategic planning to keep building occupants safe in an emergency such as fire or explosion, looking in particular at the role of signage in supporting an evacuation, or ‘invacuation’ plan.

Since the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety Order) 2005 came into force, employers have been required by law to have a “suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment” in place, which includes reviewing and designing evacuation plans, as well as signage to facilitate them. It is self-evident that in the event of a fire, it is essential to evacuate people from the building via clearly identified fire-exit routes. Simple, informative and current signage will help shave precious minutes off evacuation time, with each minute potentially equating to hundreds of saved lives.

But in this post-September 11 world, some premises also need a strategy for dealing with terrorist attacks, especially buildings near to government, political, or religious organisations. Generally, when there is a threat of a bomb exploding and a warning has been given, it can be much safer for staff to remain inside the building and to be guided to ‘internal safe areas’ (ISAs).

This might sound strange, but it makes sense. At the moment a bomb explodes, one of the major causes of death and serious injury is flying shards of glass, and once a bomb has exploded, structural collapse is a big risk. So, the safest place for people to be will be an area that is enclosed, substantially built, located centrally within a building, and glazing-free. Stairwells and bathrooms often make suitable ISAs, providing they are strong enough to withstand a blast. The term ‘invacuation’ has been coined to describe the process of guiding people to these ISAs.

Naturally, signage plays an important role in supporting an evacuation and invacuation strategy, but the strategy should also include induction and refresher training for staff, and a robust means of communicating with them in an emergency. When the unexpected happens, people need to know their fire exit route(s), and which safe area they should use. Ensuring staff are familiar with signs and routes by way of safety drills and training will pay huge dividends in the event of an emergency.

The wallpaper effect

When devising a sign strategy to support emergency procedures, whether evacuation or invacuation, bear in mind that your organisation may need three different systems of signs that perform three different functions. The first is standard wayfinding and corporate signage. The second is the mandatory fire-exit signs specified in the British Standard providing guidance on the selection and use of escape-route signs (BS 5499), and the third is a group of invacuation signs identifying and directing towards ISAs.

Without due care, this can add up to a whole plethora of signs, which could undermine all that you are trying to achieve. Without doubt, the more signs there are, the less they stand out, and the more they become part of the wallpaper. People switch off if there are too many signs vying for their attention. In an emergency, ‘sign fatigue’ can be deadly.

Formulating a strategy

To ensure that you are conveying important information without creating sign fatigue, you should begin by surveying the existing signage in your building to identify which signs you need to faithfully reflect your emergency procedures strategy. At this stage, you might typically address the following:

  • What are the routes for invacuation and evacuation?
  • In which areas is signage required?
  • Where are the destinations (e.g. the ISAs)?
  • What existing signage is there?
  • How appropriate and relevant is the existing signage in light of the strategy?
  • Where are the gaps in your system of signage?

This will enable you to develop a sign strategy that is both systematic and coordinated, but it takes care and attention to get this right. At all times, it is essential not to view the design of invacuation signage, or corporate wayfinding, or fire-exit signs as individual components but as part of an overall approach. Failure to do this can result in one group of signs clashing with another – sometimes to the point that some signs are only partly visible.

Your aim should be to “keep it simple”. Ensure that the colour schemes chosen for different sign groups are clear and distinct, and position your signs so they are visible from the greatest possible distance under the worst probable circumstances.

The goal of an evacuation/invacuation strategy is to achieve optimum usage of each escape route. If you are responsible for a complex building containing many staircases, you will need to identify each staircase with its own unique colour, or alpha or numerical reference. Your survey will enable you to produce a simple matrix showing all the staircases, their proposed unique identification, and the floors that each one serves. Colour-coding a simple spreadsheet is a good way to summarise this information for planning purposes.

Let’s say your building has 10 staircases, but only two serve all floors, and one doesn’t even serve the ground floor. In this instance, since people evacuating the upper floors only have access to two staircases, your main priority is to ensure staff evacuating the lower floors don’t hold them up. To avoid crowding, your signage and training will need to ensure that people on the lower floors are guided to use different staircases from the people upstairs.

In this scenario, your evacuation strategy should divide the lower-floor occupants equally between the other available staircases serving the ground floor. Contrary to the evacuation procedure on an aircraft, the escape route you allocate to them might not involve their nearest staircase. Ideally, you should measure the population density of each floor at different times of the day and measure the flow versus capacity of each staircase. Knowing how many people can use each staircase per minute helps establish the optimal number of people to assign to them.

Such details of your plan become critical when large numbers of people are trying to reach safe areas all at once, and these standard procedures will inform what signs you will need and where you will need to put them.

Showing the way

Once the evacuation/invacuation plan has been drawn up, a coordinated system of signs will then need to be devised. This might combine a fire-exit sign (as shown on previous page), the route to an ISA (above, left), and signs that identify staircases (above, middle-left), using a unique reference for each one. The doors to these staircases should also be marked clearly and consistently (above, right). It is equally important that your signs specify if a staircase is not a safe route.

As mentioned earlier, the strategy should also include induction and refresher training for staff. Some of the new signs, especially those referring to ISAs and/or new staircase identification, will be unfamiliar to staff, so training plays an important role in ensuring that people know what, for example, ‘ISA’ means when they see it written on a sign. Visitors to your building may not be familiar with your signs, so training should also stress the importance of helping others evacuate, or invacuate safely in an emergency. Training should also identify alternative escape routes in the event that a fire, explosion, or structural damage have made the standard escape routes unusable.

While emergency fire signs are, by statute, white on a green background, you have a greater degree of choice in the colours you use in other elements of your signage. If the colours you choose for, say, identifying staircases are likely to cause difficulties for colour-blind people, one solution is to include the name of each colour underneath each symbol.

If you are using illuminated signs, bear in mind that during emergency situations, the electrical system may close down. An alternative is to use photoluminescent signs, which absorb light before the power closes down and then glow for long enough afterwards to guide people out of the building.

It is particularly useful to have stairwell level indicators on landings that identify the floor you are on (and also the unique staircase identification). Having this reference point is reassuring for people evacuating a building, and also helps members of the Fire Service entering the building. Many organisations also have areas on stair landings that serve as ‘disabled refuges’ in emergencies, each with a push-button for communication. It is good practice for fire marshals (see below) to know which staff members have mobility problems and to take responsibility for ensuring their safe rescue.

Although not strictly a ‘sign’ an A3 map or floor plan of evacuation routes can be useful (above, middle-right). These can be displayed in tea points and breakout areas, for example, where people are likely to see them during their normal day.

By using AutoCAD, or similar software to compile the map you can update it easily and for little cost, which is an important consideration these days, when businesses are constantly adapting to economic circumstances, and the interiors of buildings, partitions, etc. change all the time. When the layout of a premises changes so, too, do the emergency routes so, when updating floor plans, don’t forget about signage.

Imagine, for example, that during building alterations a fire exit is changed but the directional signage to that exit doesn’t reflect the change. If signage isn’t current, it can prevent evacuation or invacuation from taking place as intended, and the results could be catastrophic.

Fire marshals

In the event of a fire, people need to know who their fire marshal is. Knowing the name of your fire marshal (or first-aider, for that matter) is one thing; finding them is another. Some organisations have signs that are clearly visible at the fire marshal’s workstation – this is particularly useful in big, open-plan offices.

Designated fire marshals may also need to use ‘fire sweep’ tags and boards. In a large building, each floor is divided into zones – one for each fire marshal – and each zone has its own board with a hook. In the event of a fire, the fire marshal, having ensured that everyone has left the zone, takes a tag off this hook, goes to a central control point and hangs it on the main control board, which has reference numbers corresponding to each zone. This shows which zones are clear, and which aren’t. The fire marshals can provide this information for the Fire Service so they know which areas of the building to prioritise. Ultimately, the chief fire marshal is responsible for controlling and managing this procedure.


Invacuation strategies are becoming increasingly important, and the need for them should be considered alongside evacuation strategies as part of a coordinated approach to keeping people safe in the event of an emergency in a workplace. A proper analysis of the evacuation and invacuation routes in a building will form a solid base for a strategy, backed up by clear and consistent signage, to deal with emergencies, and thus prevent deaths and injuries. 

Philip Ball is managing director of Cobal Sign Systems Ltd.

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13 years ago

Most organisations that I visit have good signage and well rehearsed evacuation procedures. One area of concern is knowing who is on site other than staff, do you have an up to date fire register for visitors and contractors and are they aware of your evacuation procedures, assembly points, and what about disabled visitors?
Food for thought perhaps,I have some interesting solutions, email for details: [email protected]

13 years ago

Things have moved on from the policy of keeping people in safe parts of a building (see BS9999). Staircase and other safe areas can often not be kept SMOKE free through badly fitting doors or people entering the space. The current recommended system for saving as many lives as possible is to evacuate the building (including disabled and injured persons) Fire authorities have no obligation to rescue people any more. Paul Holdstock (Risk Assessor)