By Steve Stephenson, Graphic Products, Inc.

In New York City, Hurricane Sandy reached its peak on the night of Monday, October 29, 2012. Most of the city had already been evacuated, but some hospitals were required to stay open. New York University’s Langone Medical Center in Manhattan was one such hospital. 800 of its most-healthy patients had been sent home, but the hospital was deemed safe enough for 215 intensive care patients to remain.

At 7:30 p.m., storm waters flooded the basement of the hospital. Both main and back-up power were lost. The 17-floor building went dark. Elevators and life-support equipment stopped working. For patients who could not breathe on their own, nurses manually squeezed oxygen bags.

Over the next 15 hours, hospital staff moved patients down dark halls and stairwells to ambulances on the ground floor. The evacuation was completed with no fatalities or serious injuries, thanks primarily to the professional actions of the hospital staff. Navigation through the pitch-black stairwells was also presumably helped by glow-in-the-dark emergency wayfinding signs, required by NYC law.

Most emergency evacuations of large facilities are not as leisurely as this one, nor do they always end as happily. In other, faster disasters—like tornados, earthquakes and tsunamis—evacuations can be panicked, deadly events. For facility and safety managers, natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy serve as a reminder that every building, no matter how safe it is usually, can become deadly. Effective emergency signs and labels are an important part of making sure a facility is fully prepared for emergencies. 

Emergency wayfinding
When disaster strikes a large facility during work hours, there will inevitably be workers or visitors who are confused about where they are supposed to go. Having clear, effective wayfinding signs help make evacuations as quick and safe as possible.

Examples of emergency wayfinding signs include: large arrows pointing toward exit routes, the exit signs themselves and instructional signs with messages like, “In Case of Emergency, Use Stairs.”

Facility managers should periodically conduct surveys of their emergency wayfinding signage. Here are some questions to ask:

  • Are the same emergency sign formats used consistently throughout the building?
  • Are signs large and easy to read?
  • Are signs located in obvious places where people would easily see them during an emergency?
  • Are signs reflective and easy to read in dim lighting?
  • Are signs easy to read in no light, when illuminated by flashlights?
  • Are signs durable enough to withstand extreme conditions, like fires and floods?
  • Could the facility benefit from glow-in-the-dark exit route markings?

In 2004, a building code law was passed in New York City that required structures taller than 75 feet to have phosphorescent (glow-in-the-dark) exit path markings for egress routes. This law was passed largely as a result of the proven usefulness of glow-in-the-dark wayfinding signs in the 9-11 World Trade Center evacuations. Since then, numerous other jurisdictions and building organizations have instituted similar standards. In situations where electricity is lost or when lights are obscured by smoke, glow-in-the-dark signs are extremely beneficial for all facilities, not just for tall buildings like the Langone hospital.

Hazardous material labeling and pipe marking

During Hurricane Sandy, many facilities and homes were destroyed by fires caused by natural gas pipe leaks. Pipe labeling is another important element in facility emergency preparedness, as is the labeling of hazardous materials in general. First responders to emergency situations need to know what materials they are dealing with so they can make the right decisions.

Facility managers should occasionally review their hazardous material labeling and pipe marking strategies. Some questions to ask include:

  • Are all relevant hazards communicated on the labels?
  • Are all labels large and easy-to-read?
  • Are labels visible from multiple angles of approach?
  • Are pipes labeled enough times along their length?
  • Are pipe shut-off valve locations shown?
  • Are locations of emergency equipment (such as wash stations) communicated?
  • Can labels being used withstand abrasion and water damage?

Lessons learned from Sandy

Hurricane Sandy was an extremely destructive storm whose power hasn’t been experienced in the area for several decades. But it’s an important reminder that, sooner or later, most facilities will face some type of emergency. Having a building with clear signs and labels is an important aspect of great emergency preparedness.

Steve Stephenson is managing partner and chief marketing officer at Graphic Products, Inc. in Beaverton, OR. He has overall responsibility for both marketing and product development for the DuraLabel brand of desktop and standalone labeling systems. Graphic Products offers phosphorescent wayfinding supplies, labeling supplies compliant with OSHA, ANSI, GHS and NFPA, pipe-marking supplies, personal protective equipment and other materials used for industrial safety and productivity.  For more information visit



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