Should It Take a Disaster to Make a Change?

Should It Take a Disaster to Make a Change?

By Tony Campbell, Director of Brand Management, Dual-Lite

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It often takes a tragedy or the loss of life before significant changes occur in our society. Unfortunately, and in the same fashion, the development and evolution of the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Life Safety Code® is attributable to some of this nation’s largest tragedies in terms of loss of life.

Fires, Explosions, and Natural Disasters

Building fires have played a significant role in the creation and development of the Life Safety Code. Following the 1903 Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, which caused at least 605 and 147 deaths, respectively, the NFPA expanded its focus to include life safety and created the Safety to Life Committee in 1913. Over the next few years, the committee published a number of materials that would form the foundation for today’s Life Safety Code.

In November 1942, 492 people died because they could not get out of the burning Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, Massachusetts. The club had only one operational door—a turnstile door, which proved ineffective as the panicking crowd pushed from both sides. As a result of this tragedy, the NFPA, with help from NEMA, rewrote much of the Life Safety Code to be suitable for adoption into local, state, and federal law.

triangle fire
Fire Escape Of Asch Building After The Triangle Fire, New York City, 1911 [1]
As recently as 2003, the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history occurred at The Station Night Club in Warwick, Rhode Island. One hundred patrons and staff were killed, and many suffered serious crush injuries as everyone attempted to exit through the front door. After the fire, the NFPA enacted strict new code provisions for fire sprinklers and crowd management.

Industrial and natural disasters that can cause building damage and the need for emergency egress—hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods—are also responsible for unnecessary injuries and deaths. The last several years have seen headlines on the 2008 dust explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia, and the 2013 chemical explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas. Certainly these and the events of September 11, 2001, and other unthinkable tragedies—including those of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and too many others—need to be remembered when discussing safety.

Saving Lives
The loss of even one life due to improperly functioning life safety equipment is unacceptable, which is why NEMA continually works to clarify and update the Life Safety Code. However, the Life Safety Code is only effective to the extent it is applied and enforced.

Every day, fire marshals and building inspectors throughout the country inspect thousands of buildings to ensure Life Safety Code compliance. If the inspector identifies a problem (such as a blocked fire exit, discharged fire extinguishers, faulty alarms, sprinklers, or elevators), the marshal can issue a warning or fine and explain to the building owner how to remedy the situation.

iStock_000000432444_LargeHowever, one aspect of life safety systems that often gets overlooked is emergency lighting. Unlike most life safety system components, emergency lighting almost always draws power from a battery supply; batteries have finite life cycles and need exercising to maximize their performance, so monthly tests and inspections are needed. The Life Safety Code mandates that building owners conduct regular functional testing of emergency lighting equipment and keep available written records of these inspections for review by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).  Of all the Life Safety system components to inspect, emergency lighting is one of the most critical, yet most often overlooked.

The Life Safety Code is clear: the responsibility for complying with the code is on the shoulders of the building owner. But the code is just that—a code and not the law. In some cases, local, state and federal laws may not adopt all aspects or the latest versions of the Life Safety Code. Therefore, the AHJ only ensures compliance with the latest applicable version of the law.

Although ignorance is never an excuse for violating the law, many building owners are unaware that they are responsible for keeping such records, so a continual education process is needed to avoid another mass casualty. Owners who do know of this requirement are, for the most part, responsible; but on occasion some choose to save money by not complying with emergency lighting requirements and risk getting caught, since there are few (if any) consequences until after a tragedy occurs.

As lighting professionals, not only is it our privilege to help develop the most meaningful and comprehensive emergency lighting standard and products, but it is also our duty to promote the importance of complying with the Life Safety Code and to continue the conversation about improving safety options in emergency situations.

The original article by the same title was published in the May 2015 edition of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.

[1] Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Fire Escape Of Asch Building After The Triangle Fire, New York City, 1911.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 16, 2016.

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