Meeting Requirements: Testing Emergency Lighting Systems

Exit signs and emergency lighting are vital lifelines in crisis situations. Unfortunately, emergency lighting equipment is often installed and forgotten. Despite numerous federal, state, and local codes requiring routine testing and documentation — NFPA 101, International Fire Code, and International Building Code to name a few — mandated testing of emergency lighting units remains a “hit or miss” proposition.

According to James Lathrop, a fire protection engineer and vice president of Koffel Associates, “Excluding healthcare and most government buildings, it is likely that more than 75 percent of the building owners/mangers across the country are not testing their emergency lighting as mandated by the NFPA 101 Life Safety Code.”

The Life Safety Code, which was established by the National Fire Protection Association nearly a century ago, sets very specific standards for the presence and routine testing of life safety equipment. Specifically, every emergency lighting fixture requires a monthly 30-second test, as well as an annual 90-minute test. Noncompliance to these testing requirements can lead to serious fines and significant liability risks.

Nonetheless, emergency lighting failures affect the safety and security of students, faculty, staff, and campus administration across the country.

The potential ramifications of such failures are significant and dramatic. In the event that a student, faculty or staff member, or anyone else is injured while exiting a building because the emergency lighting is not performing properly, the institution is at risk of being held liable due to non-compliance.

Knowing the Codes
An abundance of codes concerning exit signs and emergency lighting have been created to protect life and property. Among the more relevant codes are NFPA 101, NFPA 70, OSHA Code of Federal Regulation (OSHA 29 CFR 1910.36), International Fire Code, and International Building Code.

All these codes place an emphasis on the same general requirements for emergency lighting:
  1. Adequate and reliable illumination for path of egress and all exits
  2. Routine testing and maintenance to ensure emergency lighting is operating effectively
  3. Documentation of emergency lighting system testing and maintenance

These codes and requirements were created as a result of catastrophic events where there was not enough emergency lighting, or the emergency lighting system was not working properly because the end user installed it and neglected to maintain the system.

However, no matter how many codes are in place, incidents will still occur. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, in 2007 alone more than 116,000 non-residential structure fires were recorded, resulting in more than 100 deaths, 1,350 injuries, and $3B in direct dollar loss.

And of course, fire and smoke are not the only concerns, as power outages and rolling blackouts cost America approximately $80B annually, according to a study conducted by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Of this, $57B (73 percent) is from losses in the commercial sector and $20B (25 percent) in the industrial sector.

In short, administrators have every reason to anticipate that fire, smoke, and/or power outages are likely to affect their facilities and put their emergency lighting systems to the test sooner or later.

Do Your Part to Reduce the Risk
Although the vast majority of colleges and universities are in compliance with relevant codes as it relates to the installation of emergency lighting and exit signs, the system falters in the consistent execution of testing, which is critical to ensure fixtures are operable when needed.

On most campuses, the first line of defense in the inspection, testing, and repair of emergency lighting systems is facilities management and maintenance. However, these frontline personnel are often overburdened, if not overwhelmed, with day-to-day responsibilities. Somewhere at the bottom of this rather daunting list of responsibilities is the routine testing of dozens, if not hundreds of emergency lighting fixtures that too easily and too often slips through the cracks.

Lathrop attributes the lack of testing to the fact that neither facility managers nor enforcers are adequately aware of all the NFPA 101 code requirements to test the lighting. “When we explain the monthly 30-second and annual 90-minute emergency lighting test requirements in our NFPA code training seminars, it is very common for us to get reactions such as ‘are you serious?’ or ‘are you kidding?’

“Also, we often hear people say the 90-minute test is just too burdensome. So rather than conduct the test, they simply replace all the batteries, which does not necessarily fulfill the 90-minute requirement.” 

Testing Emergency Lighting Systems
Currently, there are three basic methods for testing emergency lighting systems to help institutions achieve compliance — manual testing, self-diagnostic, and a third-party inspector.

The most common method — manual testing — is also the most time-consuming and costly. Testing in compliance with NFPA 101 requirements can take up to 17 hours of manpower per month to manually test 100 units.

Because the process of manual testing is so laborious, lighting manufacturers developed self-diagnostic technology that automatically tests the unit every month to check for key component failures such as lamp, battery, or transfer fault. If a failure is detected, this will be visually indicated on the fixture. This solution still requires a visual inspection each month; however, it can reduce the amount of time it takes to complete the testing required and be in compliance by up to 66 percent.

Another option is to hire a third-party inspector — typically an electrical contractor — to conduct the testing. This completely removes the responsibility of manually testing and repairing emergency lighting and exit signs from the building owner and facility manger.

“I believe the best way to increase compliance with NFPA 101 is to educate the marketplace,” says Lathrop. “We need to better inform the enforcers, so they know the codes and instruct end users so they realize the importance to testing emergency lighting.”

Everyone Plays a Valuable Roll in Creating a Safer Environment

Like all things in life, there are no guarantees, and as it relates to establishing practical safeguards, there is even a point of diminishing returns. Still, the ability to establish a truly safe environment is critical, and while all the responsibility currently falls on facilities management, each of us can do our part to ensure the responsibility is shared.

Local, state, and federal governments can play a valuable role in setting and enforcing guidelines and regulations. The more emphasis the local, state, and federal governments place on properly operating emergency lighting systems, the more likely campus administration and facility managers will make it a higher priority.

Industry associations and watchdog groups must continue to improve existing standards and establish new codes and requirements to ensure building owners are aware of their responsibilities and that building occupants are reasonably protected.

Administrators, specifying engineers, contractors, architects, and facility managers must individually and collectively make emergency lighting systems a top priority. From specification and installation to inspection and maintenance, exit signs and emergency lighting cannot be viewed as a “cost-cutting” or “negotiable” line item. Too many lives depend on a transparent system that will be there — and working — when they need it.

Lighting system manufacturers must continue to push the envelope — recognizing the cost and labor issues involved in the testing/inspection process — and advance solutions that simplify compliance for building owners and ensure safety.

Finally, faculty and administration would also be well served to heighten their safety awareness. It is always a smart idea to know where exit doors and stairways are located, as well as the quickest and most secure egress path to safety. Faculty and administration also have a right to know about the presence and maintenance of emergency signage and lighting.

Robin Martin is senior manager of Product Development for Lithonia Emergency. She has expertise in building codes and requirements, emergency lighting testing methods and procedures, and the cost of compliance.