Bad Evacuation Maps

Bad Evacuation Maps

As a safe school design inspector I’ve looked at hundreds of schools all across the United States, and in the course of that work I sometimes find pretty major problems. Recently I noticed one that’s a slam dunk—clearly an embarrassing error, but cheap and easy to fix. True, it will take some time and energy to repair, but it shouldn’t bust your budget.

The problem I’m referring to is: really bad evacuation maps. Most of the ones I’ve seen, in hundreds of institutions across the country, are remarkably dysfunctional. They meet the letter of the fire code, while entirely missing the point. Here’s the deal:

Fire codes say you have to post evacuation maps. Most institutions comply (at least I hope they do.) But there’s nothing that says the maps have to make sense. And fire marshals may be complicit, dutifully checking off “evacuation map posted” without digging any deeper.

These maps are good for any occupant to become familiar with, but they are critical for new visitors to the building, or anyone under extreme stress, in fight or flight, or in a crisis where they need to flee the building. For the latter, they need to get to the door, see a posting at eye height directly next to the door, see a “you are here” indicator and a highlighted evacuation route, and have it make sense.

And here’s where it all falls apart:

Most of the facilities I’ve visited make one map. That’s it. For the whole site. Take a moment to consider what that means: you rush to the door. You are facing south (although you may not know it.) The door is facing south (so far that makes sense). The map posted next to the door has “north” at the top of the map. Which means you have to know the map is upside down, and/or stand on your head to have the map make sense. While fleeing from a disaster. Goofy, right? To match reality, the top of the map at that particular location should represent south.

So flip that map. That’s a start. But there’s more to be done. Now it becomes apparent that we need at least four maps for every site, re-configured so that north, south, east and west-facing versions can be mounted at the corresponding door, with north, south, east and west represented at the top of the map.  Part of making those maps make sense is cutting and pasting all the wording so that it reads correctly on each version, instead of sideways or upside down.

Another point to consider: if the site is complex, don’t confuse me with too many details. Make a map that’s relevant to where I am, and how I can escape. This means you may want to enlarge only a section of the overall building or site map and customize the map for each posting.

Next, put a “you are here” dot on the map. Don’t expect me to know I’m in room 411, or the Poindexter Memorial Library annex, and find that on the map. I’m not from around here, and the room’s filling with smoke.

Follow that “you are here” dot with a red line showing me which way to run.

Now we’re in pretty good shape, but there are a couple more details to include:

  • The date you made the map. That’s because buildings change over time—wings get added, rooms get combined, and as a result maps become obsolete. If I can see at a glance that this map was posted ten years ago, and I know we did some remodeling last year, I can pay closer attention to see if the map needs to be redrawn.
  • The address for where I’m standing, including the floor I’m on. Why? Because if I’m trapped, and I’m under extreme stress, I may lose the ability to draw that information from memory when I call 911. They may be able to use GPS to narrow down my location, but depending on their equipment they may not be able to determine what floor I’m on.
  • And finally, add a clue about where I can find a digital version of this map later, on file. That will make it easier to tinker with when it’s time to edit. The alternative is starting from scratch—and as you can see, drawing good maps can snowball into a major project.

To recap the main points:

  1. Make at least 4 versions, with the top of the map representing N/S/E/W to correspond to the direction the door is facing. Include N/S/E/W directional indicators.
  2. The sign should be posted directly next to that door, facing the same direction. If looking at a map at the east end of a building, while facing east, the top of the map should represent east, and should include an indicator – such as the word “east”.
  3. Include a “you are here” indicator, such as a dot labeled “you are here”.
  4. Keep it simple. Ideally the map, customized for each location, should include only the area pertinent to the room where it’s posted. Don’t confuse the viewer with details for everywhere else on campus.
  5. Include a marked escape path in a contrasting color.
  6. Date your map, to make it easier to know if it may be obsolete.
  7. Include the name, address and floor.
  8. Include location details for finding and updating the map in the future.LabyrinthExit
Tod Schneider
Written by Tod Schneider

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