In an academic study of ‘panic’ and human behaviour in fire, researchers discovered that the media portrayal of mass panic in the event of a fire is actually rarely the case. What is seen to be panicking is actually more akin to fear or a heightened sense of anxiety than a behaviour which turns out to be dangerous to others. The study found that actions witnesses perceive as panic is most often behaviour prompted by a rational inclination to deal with the problem.
For instance, in a community centre fire, a woman waiting for rescue by the window in one room saw a group of pensioners in the next room throwing a chair out of the window and assumed it had been thrown as a result of panic. The reason was actually a practical one - unsure of whether or not they could safely escape by jumping onto the roof below, the pensioners tested how far down it was by throwing a chair first. The fact that the chair broke on impact showed them it would have been more dangerous for them to escape than wait for help.
The study’s authors, therefore concluded that it is essential to provide “adequate information to people” which includes, of course, the location of the nearest fire exits.
So, the fact that people caught in a fire will be actively looking for information to help them get to safety, having fire exit signs clearly displayed will save lives.
Health and Safety requirements
The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 (the Regulations) are clear about an employer’s responsibility when it comes to fire exit signage:
- Employers are required to ensure that safety signs are provided (or are in place) and properly maintained and provide “information on escape routes and emergency exits in case of fire”.
- It is the employer’s duty to provide safety signage, as well as ensure that “employees fully understand the meaning of fire safety signs in the workplace and how to give warning in case of fire”.
- Fire safety signs which display only text are not acceptable, but text can be used in combination with pictograms. Similarly, a directional arrow is not acceptable on its own.
- Signs must be fixed securely and be sufficiently large to be clearly seen either immediately above the exit or in a position where it is least likely to be obscured by smoke.
- Finally, the regulations state that: “People usually leave premises by the same way that they enter or by routes which are familiar to them. Alternative exits (i.e. all emergency exits and any exits not in normal use) should be clearly indicated so that people know there are additional ways to leave. In addition, the provision of well-signposted exits in full view will give a feeling of security in an emergency”.