Emergency Lighting - your guiding light to safety

Gregg Masters, Managing Director at 4site Consulting, answers your questions about emergency lighting, using a worst-case-scenario to bring the requirements to life.

When reading about safety compliance, it can be hard not to glaze over a little as facts, figures and legal requirements are recited in their usual format. There is no doubt that the overall message is important, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it this far, but the answers to the questions of ‘What’s the minimum I must do?’ and ‘How often must I..?’ or ‘What can happen if I don’t..?’ would all become more evident, easier to understand and impossible to forget if we instead understood the answer to the question ‘What is the purpose of X?’.

In this article, therefore, I will present a fictional example in order to convey the purpose of Emergency Lighting in a worst-case-scenario situation and then use that narrative to define the answers to those questions.

Setting The Scene...

It’s 2am in the depths of winter and a faint beeping can be heard emanating from a vacant ground floor flat. A fire has taken hold.

A resident on the third-floor of the same building is abruptly awoken by the crashing sound of a heat-shattered window pane and very quickly comes around to the distressing realisation that their building is on fire.

Keeping near to the ground for oxygen, they make their way on all-fours through the smoke-filled common parts. Visibility is low, panic is high, and they become increasingly dizzy and disorientated from the smoke. Fumbling down the last flight of stairs, their optimism begins to grow as our resident gets to closer exiting the building, and they’ll be outside in fresh-air in just a matter of moments.

Just as they are about to turn the final corner, the fire reaches the buildings’ electrical intake supply. It melts and the power to the building, and the lighting, is gone in moments.

Sudden darkness falls around our escaping resident and, as the smoke and heat rise around them, so does its toxic dizzying effects. ‘How many stairs before I turn? What’s this object? Am I still going in the right direction?’

Thankfully, the building's Emergency Light battery supply kicks in, and their path to safety is illuminated through the smoky haze; our resident is suddenly re-orientated and back on their final steps to safety. They escape in time to be greeted by the heroic Fire and Rescue Services…

What is Emergency Lighting, Exactly?

For those who are unaware, emergency lighting is a battery-backed lighting system that automatically switches on in the event of a power outage that leaves the usual mains lighting compromised. Needless to say, most of us rely heavily on our sense of vision for our general movement and walking around, so ensuring a constant light source is vital for doing this safely, especially if we're placed in a hazardous situation.

In fact, when it comes to evacuating a building, lighting is extremely important for ensuring that people, like our third-floor resident, can make a safe exit.

Is Emergency Lighting a Requirement For All Buildings?

Not always – if Emergency Lighting isn’t present in your communal parts then your regular Risk Assessment will review each time to see if the lack of Emergency Lighting creates a significant risk.

If there is a need for it to be installed, then that same Risk Assessment should then make a recommendation accordingly.

Occasionally, ‘borrowed lighting’ from outside street lamps may be deemed sufficient for consistently illuminating the areas, especially in city centre locations. Consistency of this borrowed lighting should also be considered as many councils across the UK now switch their street lamps off after a certain time – if it cannot be guaranteed, then it should not be relied upon, because that vital lighting may could be missing at the point that it is needed the most.

Thinking back to our fictitious scenario; let’s say now that those Emergency Lighting Units, installed 7 years earlier, had never been used in a real-life emergency situation.

There’s no problem with that, of course – it’s a testament to the imaginary building’s safety record - but how can we have the confidence that they’re going to work right now, at this all-important moment? They were tested 12 months ago, so those batteries should be ok now, right?

So, rewinding a little just to the point where our Electrical Intake supply has failed and we are waiting for that life-saving ‘click’ of the emergency lighting units switching to their battery mode…

Back to Our Resident…

The Emergency Lights flicker on momentarily, but then the batteries fail after discharging their entire power in just a matter of seconds. In the darkness, the resident clambers a little further down the final few stairs but trips on the final step. Falling and rolling a little, they now have no idea where they’ve landed or in which direction they are facing. Our residents’ fate is now very much in the hands of the rescue services who will eventually discover them as they enter the property.

This has had a compounded effect of seriously endangering our resident’s life and adding a delay to the vital rescue efforts of the brigade who still need to sweep the property for other residents and put out the fire.

What Can Property Managers Do?

In this example, had the regular visual inspection taken place in the months leading up to the fire, the Property Manager would have been aware that the LED indicators (fitted to most Emergency Lighting units) were not illuminated, indicating a fault and needed repair.

Those responsible for managing an Emergency Lighting system should ensure that the activation test is completed monthly, the visual inspection of the LED’s are completed regularly (completed at your regular site inspections) and serviced annually with a full drain down test to ensure that the battery capacity remains sufficient. In addition to this, they should ensure that the emergency lighting for the block is not reliant on or affected by timer switches.

Despite their evident importance, such testing requirements can place a significant burden on Property and Facilities Mangers who don’t always have the time to visit their sites as regularly as they need to in order to complete them. With the right training however, using contractors who already regularly attend those properties (such as cleaners) is widely accepted as a way of ensuring the tests are completed as often as they need to be. Such third-party contractors will be able to check the Emergency Lighting LED’s, complete the activation test and fill out the inspection check sheets.

Sometimes engineered safety solutions, such as Emergency Lighting, work so well with such little impact on our everyday lives that it’s easy to either forget or underestimate just how vital they actually are. With that being said, however, there are some great technological solutions to managing testing requirements; one example would be self-testing emergency lighting systems which automatically check themselves, producing automated reports in order to ensure that the battery and lamp in each emergency light are fully operational.

Legal & Financial Risks

If the moral argument was not enough, there is a very convincing legal and financial consequence incumbent upon not only Block Landlords & RMC companies, but also on their appointed Managing Agents. Even in a situation where nobody becomes injured, the Fire Enforcement authorities are there to catch the problems before they happen and make examples of those who have a blatant disregard for the safety of their residents.

Below I have provided one recent real-life example for your reference:

A Residents Management Company were fined £15,500 for fire safety breaches at a block.

Emergency services were alerted to the building after a fire alarm sounded on 27th August 2019. They found the escape route to be blocked and safety systems, such as emergency lighting, poorly maintained.

Emergency lighting, an alarm system, and fire extinguishers had not been regularly tested or maintained and the basement was being used to store flammable items.

The company director pleaded guilty to total of 9 fire safety breaches and was fined £15,500.

Fines such as these are uninsurable losses, and there were no injuries or fatalities associated with the emergency services initial call-out. If there were, then it's likely to have been significantly higher with custodial sentences along with it.

Conclusion

I opened this article with a fictitious example in order to provide something for readers to relate to without also having to tread carefully around the emotive anguish of an actual incident. There are unfortunately plenty of real cases out there that could have been used instead, and most of them were avoidable in some way or other.

In the spirit of optimism and positivity, our third-floor resident made it out safely, and it was all ok. In reality, of course simply thinking positively seldom saves lives - acting positively and routinely maintaining a lifesaving system certainly does.

At 4site, we provide advice through Risk Assessment, on how to manage safety at your building. Indeed, any good Health Safety & Fire Risk Assessment will not only review the risks posed by the available lighting at your managed property, but will also complete an in-depth gap analysis of your testing and inspection regime through a full review of its associated documentation.

Consult your service documentation and inspection records for the current status of your emergency lighting system and review your Risk Assessments regularly to keep on top of safety.

If you would like any further advice on how to safely manage your block, do not hesitate to get in touch! Contact our expert team via our website or by calling 01376 572 936.

Article first published in Edition 45 of Flat Living Magazine.