Directional Sound Cuts Day Care’s Evacuation Times

By David George

Life-safety system emits non-verbal, location-based cues that quickly lead building occupants to safety in the event of a fire.

Safety usually tops a parent's list of questions when inquiring about day care centers. "Parents look for a good fire alarm system and a good security system, and those things are important to them, if they're smart. If you have any common sense at all, you want that protection for your children," stated Kathie Maxwell, who co-owns Children’s Haven Child Care Center in Denver with her husband, Tom.

That's why when Kathie and her directors give tours, they point out a new fire and life safety technology that safeguards their young charges. This new technology is the ExitPoint™ directional sound system from System Sensor, a St. Charles, Ill. manufacturer of fire detection and notification products. What sets ExitPoint apart from a typical fire alarm or horn is that it doesn’t just warn building occupants that there’s a fire; it signals where to find the nearest exit.

Triggered by the fire alarm control panel, ExitPoint draws attention to exit routes in emergency situations. The varying tones and intensities coming from directional sound devices offer easy-to-understand cues for rapidly finding exits. ExitPoint can be used in a number of applications, including university and college campuses, schools, office buildings, retail, lodging, museums and day care centers.

Test Runs Prove System Effectiveness
Children's Haven has been practicing fire drills with ExitPoint every month since installing the system at its new location last year. The children have become accustomed to the sound, and their reaction times have improved. During their fire drills, the Children’s Haven staff blocks one exit, forcing the children to find another way out. Even with these obstacles, the center's full-building evacuation time has dropped from about two minutes to one.

"Being a child care facility, it helps children to concentrate a lot better on decibels that get louder versus an annoying, blowing horn that doesn't change in frequency no matter how far away you get from it," said Efrain Cordova, an electrical contractor with Competitive Electric Inc. in Denver, who installed ExitPoint at Children's Haven.

Although the infants and toddlers are too young to evacuate the same way the older children do — and by law, their rooms must have their own outside exits — ExitPoint sounders above their exits provide extra assistance for adult caregivers. "Even if the room filled with smoke and was in pitch-black darkness, they'd still get out," said Cordova.

Tests conducted with adults, by the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, proved that subjects react intuitively to the system. Evacuees without prior knowledge of ExitPoint simply knew to follow the whooshing sound, which increased in intensity the closer they came to the sounder. Those with prior knowledge did evacuate slightly faster.

Complex Routing Cuts Evacuation Times ExitPoint can be set up for complex routing, meaning evacuation may entail passing through rooms, going around corners, and climbing up or down stairs to reach the nearest exit. In complex routing scenarios, a series of sounders can be installed along the escape route. When ExitPoint is activated concurrent with the fire alarm system, evacuees will be drawn toward the nearest sounder. As they approach that first sounder, they begin to hear the next sounder in succession. This process continues along the complete escape route. Near the end of the route, the pulse rate of the devices intensifies to indicate proximity to the exit. Directional sound technology can be installed to accommodate multiple escape routes within a single facility.

Directional assistance, although particularly important for evacuees unfamiliar with a building and its exits, is also beneficial to regular building occupants. People are creatures of habit and tend to go in and out of a building the same way every time. In an emergency, they'll often bypass the closest exits in favor of their regular route. In facilities with forward-facing seating, such as stadiums and auditoriums, building occupants may not realize that their nearest exit is behind them and will simply head for an exit that they can immediately see. ExitPoint can help cut evacuation times by leading occupants to alternative exits.

Directional sound technology is intended to be an enhancement to — not a replacement for — fire alarms and other notification systems. Standard fire alarms and detectors, which are by far the most commonly installed audible systems, have their own place in fire and life safety. Their biggest advantages are that they get people's attention, and almost everyone understands what they mean. Unfortunately, people are so accustomed to false alarms that they often fail to immediately evacuate. Even when people do heed the warning, they cannot count on fire alarms and detectors to help them find an exit because these devices are not designed to be anything more than a warning system.

The reason that these devices can’t help people find an exit is that the sound emitted from fire alarms and detectors is based on a single-frequency, narrowband noise that cannot be localized. In other words, the noise does not give people enough auditory information to accurately and consistently find the sound’s source. And if people cannot pinpoint the sound’s source, then they can’t follow the sound to safety. Positioning these single-frequency devices directly above or next to an exit is simply not enough for providing the type of location information that people need.

Safety Becomes a Sound Advantage
Based on broadband, multi-frequency sounds that do give people sufficient auditory location information, ExitPoint can guide evacuees to the nearest exit. The effectiveness of the technology is most dramatic in smoky or low-visibility conditions where visually based way-finding guides, such as illuminated signage, would falter. Studies have shown that ExitPoint reduces evacuation times by up to 75 percent in smoky conditions and by 35 percent in clear visibility. The technology also holds great promise for blind or visually impaired individuals, as well as for those with partial deafness who frequently cannot hear tones in the typical conversational range, but likely can pick up part of a multi-frequency sound.

It's for these reasons that Cordova believes that directional sounders are "10-fold better than horns for a standard fire alarm system."

This safety advantage is important to the Maxwells, who strive to do what’s best for the children. Kathie admitted, however, that juggling the best interests of the children against the budget realities of a center dependent partially on dwindling state funding is not easy. About half of the center’s children come from low-income families, including teen parents who are part of an outreach program with three Denver-area high schools.

Donations, including the ExitPoint system and classroom computers, have made it possible for Children’s Haven to offer a safe learning environment for children. The ExitPoint system, according to Kathie, is "a great system for people to know about, and we appreciate what we got."

Published Wednesday, July 26th, 2006

Written by David George

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