Emergency lighting: everything you need to know

Jordan Begg busts some myths and looks in detail at system design and the need for effective signage and regular maintenance 

As block lighting specialists, at Future Lighting the most common question we are asked is still “Does my block need emergency lighting?” The short answer to this is “yes”.

With safety at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it’s hard to argue against the requirement for an emergency lighting system in a residential block. The provision of adequate levels of emergency lighting throughout the escape route for the required three-hour duration, as a safe means of escape in the event of emergency/power loss, is a no-brainer. And Post-Grenfell, I am confident that no new build scheme or block refurbishment would now be signed off without an emergency lighting system in place.

So what is the legal requirement for emergency lighting in residential blocks? The answer derives from The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRFSO) 2005, which came into force in October 2006. This charges the responsible person, usually the property manager, RMC or RTMCo, with the safety of everyone in the building, whether living, working or visiting. This duty of care includes the provision of emergency lighting. 

Article 14 (2) (h) of the RRFSO states“Emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity in the case of failure of their normal lighting”. This designates emergency lighting part of the fire safety provision of a building and cannot be ignored. 

The Industry Committee for Emergency Lighting (ICEL), which is the foremost UK authority on emergency lighting and provides third party accreditation for components and products for emergency light fittings under the auspices of the Lighting Industry Association (LIA) confirms this, saying: “The legal requirement is that non-domestic buildings must be safe at all times, even if mains power failure occurs. Therefore, nearly all such buildings must have emergency lighting fitted”.

Getting the design right

So it’s clear that emergency lighting is required in your block, but how best to design an effective system? The obvious place to start is of course with the escape route, where residents are commonly directed through flat lobbies and stairwells. The grey areas that are often called into question and frequently spark debates between contractors, residents, directors and property managers are the external parts  and plant/service rooms. While the areas which form the escape route should be covered in the block’s Fire Emergency Evacuation Action Plan and/or the Fire Risk Assessment, there is also a requirement for the inclusion of external areas, final exits and service rooms. 

The reason for this needs some clarification. The British Standard for emergency lighting clearly states that: “In order to assist dispersal to a place of safety, the external areas in the immediate vicinity of final exits should be illuminated in accordance with the illumination level for escape routes, given in EN 1838 (BS 5266-7) of not less than 1 Lux.”

This is a requirement under British Standards to ensure mains distribution and switchgear are adequately lit for immediate disconnection of the mains electrical supplies when the Fire Brigade enters the premises to isolate all supplies.

Does your system pass the test? 

Routine testing and planned preventative maintenance are essential to ensure the emergency lighting system is well maintained and does indeed provide adequate levels of illumination in the event of emergency/power loss. 

All blocks that have an emergency lighting system in place should appoint a dedicated contractor employing trained emergency lighting specialists and enter a service and maintenance agreement for a 12-month period. Property managers should review this contract each year, to ensure they are getting the correct service at competitive rates. The frequency of testing should then be discussed between the management team and contractor with the decision based on risk factors and the fire exit strategy for the block. 

We advise that the minimum frequency of testing by trained specialists should be one three-hour duration EML test and inspection per year. However, a monthly Flick Test Procedure is also required and should be carried out and documented either by the same contractor or by dedicated members of in-house staff who have been trained by these specialists. This ensures that any immediate failures are identified and rectified, minimising the risk of failures in the event of power loss and maintaining the performance of the emergency lighting system to ensure residents have a safe means of escape.

Emergency exit sign on interior building
Keeping on top of repairs

Following each three-hour emergency lighting duration test there will always be a number of failures which need addressing. However, I commonly see the “LED gear tray” approach or entire light fitting replacement as the only proposed options for repair, without any details provided around the type or level of failure. 

And while I often advise that emergency light failures are the perfect opportunity to begin the transition from fluorescent light fittings to LED technology and improved control methods due to all the added cost and environmental long term benefits that they bring, there are other factors that need to be taken into account.

LED gear trays installed in old fluorescent style bulkhead lights often give off a harsh glare, so I regard this option as something of a lazy approach, without giving due consideration to the aesthetics of the building or developing a long-term plan for the lighting system during the transition to LED lighting. Also, thought should be given to the position the warranty may take on a product installed in a housing not essentially compatible with LED technology. Unfortunately, the cost effectiveness of LED technology will be eradicated by the wrong approach or the failure to install good quality LED products, tested and verified by a specialist in the field.

Another issue around repairs is that simple battery replacements are often overlooked but should never be disregarded where duration failures are the only faults and property managers are faced with tight budgets. In reality emergency lighting is often a low priority when it comes to annual expenditure so the approach to repairs should always be discussed between lighting specialists and property managers. Careful consideration should be given to the type of failure being logged, the long/short term plan for the lighting system, annual and forthcoming budgets, aesthetics of the building and that transition period where residents are likely to have a mixture of lighting types and where contractors should always try to minimise the difference between technologies and, more important, colour temperatures.

Can we do without signage?

The necessity for emergency signage is often hotly debated by residents and their property managers – and it’s easy to see why. In some circumstances, a bright green photoluminescent sign pinned to a newly decorated wall does nothing to enhance the aesthetics of the block. Then there is the argument that if there is only one final exit to the building – that being the same front door any resident or visitor came through to enter the building – why is it necessary to signpost it? In contrast, residents in buildings with more than one exit rarely raise that argument as they accept, in an emergency, the need to be directed to the quickest and safest means of escape.

The advice and recommendation of any reputable emergency lighting specialist would be to always have exit signage installed. Effective signage gives residents the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the escape route and provides a clear visual of the way to the final exit at a time when panic may have set in and they may find themselves with limited vision due to smoke in the common areas.

So ultimately, for all the reasons outlined above, when asked whether or not a block needs emergency lighting, our answer will always be a resounding “yes”.  Without an efficient, compliant installation, should any block experience sudden power loss or the need to evacuate in the event of an emergency or a fire, residents’ chances of a swift, safe exit would be greatly reduced.

Jordan Begg is director of Future Lighting, a division of the Future Group

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