The Grenfell Tower Fire – What lessons can be learnt and how might Photoluminescent Escape Route Marking Systems have helped save lives?
Adrian Iley, Treasurer, Photoluminescent Safety Products Association.
The terrible fire and multiple deaths resulting from the Grenfell Tower fire has inevitably resulted in a widespread inquest into the circumstances which lead up to the fire and in particular, the properties of the cladding materials used. This has uncovered the fact that Grenfell is just one of many examples where a combination of budget pressure and poor oversight seems to have allowed corners to be cut when it comes to the safety of residents in similar high-rise buildings.
Of course the jury is out pending such enquiries but it is already clear that the quality of cladding materials used was only one part of the story – there were clearly many other areas where the safety of the residents was compromised. In particular, the lack of any kind of effective escape route marking system which could aid escape in such dangerous circumstances; e.g. stairways in thick smoke conditions. The report in the Sunday Times (25 June) stated ‘The Grenfell stairwell should have provided a safe passage away from danger; instead, as toxic draughts swirled through the building, it turned into a vertical tunnel of smoke. Heavily laden fireman trying to reach higher floors and residents desperate to flee downstairs were left groping around in a poisonous darkness and harrowing scenes of desperation and panic……..the smoke grew thicker with each floor we went up….around the ninth floor we lost all visibility and the heat was rising……….”It was horrendous,” one firefighter said. “You could not see your hand in front of your face.”
Of course we should not forget that there were other factors which probably also contributed to the death toll; especially the ‘stay put’ policy which is now under general review. Nevertheless, the safe movement of people in smoke conditions down a stairway and away from danger is surely an area that should be reviewed in the light of this tragedy. It is an unfortunate fact of life that only when there are such disasters do Governments and Authorities seriously consider and implement laws and regulations to improve public safety.
I did not see the emergency evacuation system in the Grenfell Tower but from looking at the BBC commentary on a similar tower block in the vicinity there did not seem to be any markings at all in the stairwells. However if we assume as a minimum that there were high level mounted electrical EXIT signs above main escape doors combined with escape plans on each floor this was clearly not enough to help people in these extreme conditions.
The Photoluminescent Safety Products Association is a Trade Association representing the voice of companies worldwide who promote the use of Photoluminescent materials (incorporated into paint, plastic and printed products). These absorb UV energy, then store and re-emit it in the form of visible light for many safety applications. The great benefit of Photoluminescent (PL) systems is that in the event of a total power failure they provide sufficient light to give directional indications on an escape route.
There was an interesting study made by Ilmenau University in Germany in 2003 where PL systems were compared with electrical evacuation systems in smoky conditions (typical of an emergency situation). The study concluded that continuous lines of low ambient light fitted at a low level (c1m off the floor) were found to be much more effective as an escape route marking system than high mounted high brightness electrical sources which in smoke could be obscured and cause disorientation due to light scattering effects.
There were two subsequent studies made in 2007 and 2008 by the National Research Council in Canada (NRC) where different layouts of PL evacuation systems were tested in four stairwells to establish which was most effective at evacuating people in an emergency. These clearly demonstrated that a relatively simple and cost-effective system can significantly aid the fast evacuation from buildings.
The events of September 11 2001 in New York and the subsequent blackout in 2003 led to the implementation on May 31 2005 of ‘Local Law 26’. This specified the installation of low level PL systems in all stairwells of High-Rise buildings in New York City. The effectiveness of these systems had already been proven in 2001 to have enabled people to evacuate the Twin Towers in a total power failure situation in smoke when they might otherwise have perished.
In BS:ISO16069 there is a very clear standard for PL use in public buildings which is entirely appropriate for application in High-Rise buildings such as Grenfell Tower at reasonable cost and with a minimum of disruption to the inhabitants.
There are numerous other applications today of PL evacuation systems in regular use. Good examples are in areas of public transport: passenger aircraft, cruise ships, railways and road tunnels. PL evacuation systems are well proven and provided they are supplied and fitted by companies whose product meets the minimum performance standards required for the application they should be seriously considered as a standard back-up system to the commonly prescribed electrical Emergency lighting. Certainly it would provide an effective escape route even in smoke conditions to safety for residents of High-Rise buildings.
Local Law 26 New York Code