The main purpose of locks and door closures is to keep people either in or out (otherwise every door could be like the flaps in the old Western saloons), but there is one circumstance in which letting people through is much more important. When emergency strikes, then there’s only one rule: get ’em out as fast as possible.
For that reason, there is a range of emergency and panic exit devices which make the business of getting out of a locked door in a hurry easier. Essentially emergency exit devices are designed for buildings where people know their way around, while panic exits are designed for places like airports or cinemas, where the public has to find the door first before opening it. While the former are locks with an override which can be operated by one hand, the latter are specially designed for situations where people are not expected to have time to think. Panic exit devices feature a cross-bar or a touch-bar which extends across most of the width of the door, operated by just pushing on the bar.
So what exactly do people do in an emergency? There’s been plenty of research on this issue over the years, but opinion among experts has changed substantially over the last fifty years. It used to be thought that crowds tended to panic and to rush for the exits. It was assumed that, while individuals were rational, they lost their ability to make reasonable decisions when they got together in a crowd. So they would all rush for the same door, trampling over each other and blocking the exits in their attempt to escape, instead of departing efficiently in an orderly fashion.
More recent research, which has been given increased urgency by such disasters as the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Center and the suicide bombings of the London Underground in 2005, have called the traditional view into question. These disasters and others show that people certainly do think, even in an emergency.
Dr John Drury of the psychology department of Sussex University in England, who heads an inter-university project on crowd behavior, says that in the disasters he had studied, “There isn’t any mass panic. Some individuals may panic, but not the crowd as a whole.” The crowd may well develop its own sense of solidarity, since everyone knows they are in the same boat, and people will often help each other, even at risk to themselves.
As one survivor of the London Underground attacks said, “One of the things which struck me about this experience is that one minute you are standing around strangers and the next minute they become the closest and most important people in your life. That feeling was quite extraordinary.”
Taking threats seriously
Of course, the London Underground bombings were an attack on commuters who weren’t doing anything else at the time and who immediately knew that something had gone wrong. In many cases, when an emergency alarm sounds, people spend quite a lot of time thinking about how seriously they should take the alarm and whether they should finish what they are doing first. They’ll ask other people around them and develop a consensus as to how serious the issue is. That loss of time can be fatal. As Neil Townsend, Divisional Officer of the London Fire Rescue Service says, “When people die in fires, it’s not because of panic; it’s more likely to be the lack of panic.”
Professor Norman Groner of the department of public management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, says on the American Psychological Association’s (APA) website that voice announcements would therefore probably be more effective than bells or sirens. And, if the alarm were operated by a security desk or fire-command center, it could even alert building occupants to the location of the fire in the building and recommend safer evacuation routes.
That fits with John Drury’s view that communication is the key. He argues that crowds need to be trusted more, and that the old idea that the truth only adds to the panic is outdated. In fact, he says, “We need to give the same kind of thought to proper procedures and good technology for communication as we do to proper procedures on technical matters such as width of exits.”
Illuminate the passage
That’s not to say that such technical matters are of no importance. Drury notes that, following the attempted first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, lighting was installed in the emergency staircases. In addition, evacuation drills were put in place – drills which, incidentally, assume that people will not panic, but use the information they gather from previous experience. “Had the 9/11 attacks taken place without these measures, many more people would have died,” he says. In the event, according to USA Today, 99 percent of the people below the point of impact of the planes were rescued.
But it would have been no use getting to the bottom of the stairs if you couldn’t find the door. ASSA ABLOY has developed its LiteGuide technology which illuminates the emergency exit. Using either a photoluminescent coating, which does not require power, or a highly visible electroluminescent strip, which can be powered by battery if the electricity supply is interrupted, LiteGuide illuminates additional indicators to help people find the exit. The technology can be used to light door frames, exit devices and signs to help people find them in the dark or in smoke, and it can be integrated into a system lighting the path to the way out, triggered by a security alarm. One useful feature is the provision of a low level exit sign on the door, which can be seen even by people crawling under smoke.
Another ASSA ABLOY technology provides flashing lights and audible signals, including verbal announcements, to guide escapees to the exit. The purpose is to encourage people to feel confident about using a different door from the one they entered through. Experience shows that people tend to want to leave the way they arrived, and as Guyléne Proulx, a senior researcher at the National Research Council of Canada told the APA, that, in a way, is a sensible thing to do: “During an emergency, occupants don’t want to use an exit they have no experience with – they don’t know where it will lead.”
Easy to open
But even when you’ve found the right door, you need to be able to get out – and that is where panic exit devices come in. The old clunky crossbars are a thing of the past. Now standards require that crossbars or touchbars open with just the lightest touch, and that they open to pressure anywhere along their length. Two divisions of ASSA ABLOY – TESA of Spain and JPM of France – are currently working to develop a new single platform for the whole of Europe, conforming to European standard EN 1125.
Juan Iraeta, Market Development and Innovation Manager at TESA, says, “Currently, we are developing the rim-mounted version, which is more prevalent in Europe, and we will be moving on to the mortise-mounted version later.” One problem for lock makers, though, is that such exits are a weak spot in building security, so ASSA ABLOY has developed devices which can be linked to computer-controlled access systems. “This way, for example, in a department store, there can be a delay built in so that security can check if the person trying to leave is just trying to get out without paying,” Iraeta explains. “Or the door can be set to deny egress entirely during times when the store is closed and no one should be there.”
But safety always goes before security. As soon as a fire alarm is pressed, all restrictions are lifted, and a gentle push on the bar will immediately open the door. “It’s our aim to make products which end users can trust to help in a disaster,” says Iraeta. “It should immediately be obvious how to use the equipment.”
In other words: don’t panic, just push!
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