Planning for Emergency Evacuation
What's Safe vs. What's Required
It is essential that co-op and condo boards or management companies have an emergency plan in place for situations like fires, power blackouts, hostage situations, or terrorism. While good planning is a major factor in keeping residents safe, hardware like emergency lighting and signage also play a key role in emergencies. To that purpose, let’s examine the various products, technologies, and laws relating to the safe evacuation of your building in the case of an emergency.
An Emergency Management Plan
Although no New York City law requires that residential buildings have an emergency evacuation or management plan, experts generally agree that it’s smart for residential buildings to consider what they would do in the case of an emergency. At the very least, simple building layouts should mark floor plans so residents know how to get to the nearest exit. Exit signs—with a battery back-up that should last at least 90 minutes past a power outage, according to city code—should mark stairwells and doorways. And all residential buildings should have fire alarms.
Beyond those things, however, the city of New York doesn’t require that residential buildings formulate or maintain an emergency management or evacuation plan, nor do they require that these buildings make use of the photoluminescent exit path markings that are required by Local Law 26 of commercial buildings over the height of 75 feet.
When board members decide on formulating a plan, consult the experts.
“Certainly the homeowner’s association or condo board would want to hire professional qualified consultants to be involved,” suggests Rich Goldsby, vice president of operations for Defense Holdings, Inc. (DHI), the largest installer of photoluminescent materials in the United States and the firm that holds the largest contract—the Pentagon. One of DHI’s business units—Afterglow Federal—sells and installs photoluminescent safety systems in government buildings, while another subsidiary, Afterglow Technologies, does all of the company’s commercial sales and services in the New York City market.
“This is not something for some ad hoc committee of the condo association to take on themselves, that’s for sure,” he adds.
Boards should definitely consider hiring a professional consultant, according to Peter Boritz, president of Real Data Management, a company headquartered in New York City that is the leading provider of real estate space and information management solutions. “Private consultants bring their specialized knowledge to the board,” he says.
Local Law 26 and Photoluminescents
In 2005, the New York City set forth Reference Standard 6-1 (RS6-1), which details how commercial buildings should go about installing and maintaining photoluminescent exit path markings, as required by Local Law 26 of 2004, part of the New York City Building Code. RS6-1 reads that these markings “will aid in evacuation from buildings in the event of failure of both the power and back-up power to the lighting and illuminated exit signs” [from RS6-1].
Local Law 26 requires “that an approved system of photoluminescent low-location emergency lighting marking be put in stairwells of most commercial buildings over the height of 75 feet,” explains Goldsby. “As a result, there was a huge effort by the photoluminescent signage industry to satisfy the need in New York City because, as we know, there are a couple of buildings over 75 feet tall here,” he jokes.
Many in the emergency evacuation business question a law that outlines safety requirements in the area of commercial buildings, but not for residential buildings.
“We always wondered about that because if you have a 25-story office building next to a 25-story condo, what’s the difference?” asks Goldsby. “A lot of people in New York City work in high-rise office buildings in the city [where Local Law 26 applies] and then go home to a high-rise residential building [where it doesn’t apply].”
“It kind of begs the question,” agrees Paul Holmes, president of AddLight in Charlotte, NC, a company that supplies Everglow photoluminescent products to the New York City market. “I’ve seen these apartment buildings in the city. You’ve got 800 units and inside people are all over the place, cooking and smoking and doing all kinds of things that might cause the building to go up in flames.”
Shouldn’t the residents have a clear exit path out of the building, when electrical exit signs are obscured or not working because of fire and/or darkness?
The purpose of the law is to outline the specifications for how buildings should place photoluminescent signs and markings.
“You’re trying to mark the targets and the obstacles,” he says. “Targets would be edges of a hallway, the stairwells, and handrails in the stairwells.”
Lighting the Way
Photoluminescent (basically a fancy word for ‘glow-in-the-dark’) materials can be likened roughly to the glow-in-the-dark stars we use on our children’s bedroom ceilings.
“Photoluminescents are like those kids’ stars on steroids,” adds Boritz. “But the kids’ stars wear out while these don’t. I think they’re a great back-up of the back-up because they don’t require [electrical] power.”
Much like the aforementioned adhesive stars, photoluminescent materials utilize phosphors that absorb ultra-violet light. The photoluminescent markings then emit the stored light as a result of being exposed to the ambient light from fluorescent fixtures.
Many people in the industry focus on the energy-conserving aspect of this type of emergency lighting—because it doesn’t cost anything to maintain or power. In fact, other than the initial installation costs of this type of emergency lighting, there are no other costs associated with it, other than the fact that you need to have the lights on when the building is occupied in order to charge the photoluminescent markings.
Goldsby lists some figures for installing, maintaining, and powering just one exit sign over the course of 10 years. An electric exit sign using two incandescent bulbs would cost $1,614 for that time period, while a sign with fluorescents would cost $933. An LED sign would cost the building roughly $448—much better. However, a photoluminescent exit sign would cost a mere $215, a number that reflects only the installation cost.
“Certainly this makes sense to people who are paying the electric bills,” points out Goldsby.
Suggested But Not Required?
One way New York City’s Local Law 26 differs from other cities around the country is its requirement of an Emergency Action Plan (EAP). Aside from having emergency lighting, this requires landlords to “put together a book that creates an accurate floor plan for every floor of the building,” according to Boritz. “So, in the case of some sort of crisis—fire, power outage, terrorism, chemical situation—there’s a narrative that tells the building’s management what to do with tenants and how to evacuate safely and efficiently. This is unique to New York. I know no other city that has adopted this form of requirement.”
Boritz, whose company has been heavily involved in creating these floor plans and putting them online using broadband connections, reports that buildings will hire vendors like him to go in and physically survey each floor in order to help the building create an updated floor plan book. By placing floor plans online using security measures (similar to online banking), Boritz’s company enables fire or police personnel to quickly and efficiently assess floor plans without sifting through a file cabinet, which was the protocol as recently as a year ago.
Although only for commercial buildings at this point, Boritz doesn’t think the time is too far off that this sort of thing will be required for residential buildings, as well. And many residential buildings—including co-ops and condos—are already voluntarily choosing to put into place this sort of emergency management plan just because it’s safer.
Even if your board decides that now is not the time to establish an emergency plan that goes beyond what is required by the city, you might want to consider these things for the near future. Not only because the measures mentioned in this article make for safer residents, but also because the time might not be so far off that the city adds “residential buildings” to its law.
Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.