Canadian Consulting Engineer

Exit Sign Language

May 1, 2000
By Kevin Cheong, P.Eng.

One of my colleagues recently commented that the codes change about as fast as molasses, and I quipped that they seem to move more like glaciers. Actually, the codes do change as issues change, but be...

One of my colleagues recently commented that the codes change about as fast as molasses, and I quipped that they seem to move more like glaciers. Actually, the codes do change as issues change, but beliefs, perceptions, and interpretations don’t necessarily change with them. Recently I reviewed a set of drawings for a project that was shelved some time ago and noted that the drawings reflected a number of criteria that no longer exist in the building code.

People often think that the building codes have clear rules on what can be done, when in fact almost everything is subject to interpretation. There are many ways in which the codes are not as precise as people think and how requirements are clearly misinterpreted.

An example is directional signage. According to the 1995 National Building Code of Canada, buildings with more than two storeys or more than 150 occupants, or areas that are dependent on fire escapes, only require exit signs over exit doors (Section 3.4.5). If additional signage is required to lead someone to an exit, it is not exit signage, but rather what I call directional signage. Exit signs have to be continuously illuminated while the building is occupied, whereas directional signs do not.

It is only on rare occasions that I have taken advantage of this difference between the requirements for exit and directional signs. The reason is that almost everyone else thinks exit signs have to be used in all cases, whether they are contractors, inspectors, or other engineers. In order to use unlit signs, I often have to educate everyone else involved. While I am paid to teach night school, I am not paid to teach my colleagues in my day job. Another reason I rarely use unlit directional signage is potential liability.

Every professional knows that we are potentially liable and held to the standard of care of a reasonable practitioner (or higher). A typical engineer would use illuminated exit signs. Is this “reasonable” even though it is done out of ignorance? Could I be held liable because I did something that could be considered less safe, even though the peer who uses the illuminated signs actually knows the codes less thoroughly than I do? Personally, I find the idea absurd, but not implausible.

I also think a farm of illuminated signs is likely to confuse someone in an emergency. I think a lawyer could just as easily claim that a lit exit sign over a suite door with a little tiny arrow confused a fire victim. If the sign over the exit door was the only one lit up, it would have stood out in a dark smoky corridor. How many people knew what the chevrons on exit signs were for before they joined the industry? How many people know what an area of refuge is? I have actually seen them labelled as areas of refuse, and we have all seen them used as such.

Everyone thinks that directional signage has to consist of exit signs. This status quo is perpetuated because every other building has them. Perhaps this was a requirement in the building code long before I became involved in the industry; I don’t know. Engineers expect to show exit signs, contractors expect to install them, and building inspectors, electrical inspectors and fire departments expect to see them. On one occasion, I had physically to show the section of the code to the electrical inspector before he would believe me that we did not need lit exit signs. The only reason I used the provision was that we were working in an existing building with a furred down concrete ceiling in which I could not add an electrically connected sign.

Hard to understand

Many times I have been told that “it is better to err on the side of caution,” and I have often rebutted “isn’t it even better not to err?” Why do we err? Partly because the codes attempt to be unambiguous and end up being indecipherable. The sheer size of the codes and the number of different codes and standards that apply are also a major problem.

Several factors help make the codes incomprehensible. One is that engineers and others responsible for the codes are accustomed to writing in phrases of technical lingo. As well, while many terms in the codes are defined, which helps to eliminate misinterpretations, countless other terms aren’t defined. Often we have to read a pile of non-applicable information to find and understand the applicable part. And the codes avoid duplication by cross-referencing information, but this makes reading difficult.

Often different sections of the codes that should be based on similar concepts have very different requirements. Perhaps inconsistencies result because multiple committees develop the codes. Many standards, or portions of standards, are written and sometimes referenced, but they are not enforced routinely. Standards that are not enforced miss out on any feedback that would be forthcoming if they were applied. Consequently, inconsistencies are never addressed.

I think codes should be written with examples of how they should be applied. When I teach, I try to explain the rationale and intent that is implied by the codes because I feel this makes them far easier to remember. It is also the only way people know how to apply the provisions when a situation isn’t cookie-cutter simple.

I often hear people argue for performance-based or objective-based codes, but I think to myself that we don’t even understand the codes we have. How can we hope to achieve technically challenging objectives without understanding the current requirements? If we can’t make the current codes relevant and understandable, how can we hope to develop new ones based on a fundamentally different concept?CCE

Kevin Cheong, P.Eng. is an electrical engineer with Robert Freundlich & Associates of Vancouver. He also teaches fire alarm inspection and testing at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.


Stories continue below

Print this page

Related Stories