What is Emergency Lighting?

A key part of emergency egress routes is emergency lighting.


Casting the greenish glow seen in many a teen-horror movie, emergency lighting saves lives when disasters hit, and as such, are an essential legal requirement for many buildings, from schools to hospitals, shopping centres to cinemas.

‘Emergency routes and exits requiring illumination must be provided with emergency lighting of adequate intensity in the case of failure of their normal lighting.’[1]


Emergency lighting comes in three types,

  1. escape route lighting;

  2. open area / anti-panic area lighting; and

  3. high risk task area lighting.


Emergency lighting works alongside Fire Curtains covering egress routes to protect and ensure emergency exits during fires, or other emergencies. As such, this is the type of emergency lighting we will investigate in more detail, as it aligns most closely with Active Fire Curtains.[2]


Table to demonstrate locations for emergency lighting, the necessary response time, the minimum illuminance, minimum duration and reference plane.

Key locations within buildings have recommendations for emergency lighting luminance levels, based on the function of the space. These luminance levels are given in ‘Lux,’ the standard unit of illumination, transcribed as lx.[3]


The exact number of lx associated with a particular space or room is outlined in more detail in BS 5266, considering the function of the space and the users of the space, for example, the elderly, children, etc.[4]

Chart with example lux values, explaining what lux values translate to with real world examples.

Emergency lighting will need to be operational for a minimum or 1-hour or 3-hours after the loss of mains lighting, and this can be achieved with battery back-ups.


As outlined in BS 5266, this is down to building usage, and evacuation and re-entry procedure. For example, if the building is to be evacuated quickly upon supply failure, and not reoccupied until back-up batteries are fully recharged, then 1-hour back-up batteries may be used. This applies to buildings such as,

  • schools,

  • colleges, and

  • laboratories.


However, some buildings require a 3-hour battery back-up. This will apply if,

  • building users may be sleeping on the premises,

  • or buildings are used for care or treatment, such as special schools or clinics.

  • If buildings are used for recreation, for example cinemas, theatres, or pubs, or

  • feature large numbers of the public, for example galleries, museums, and shops.

  • Also, if the building were to be re-entered immediately after mains power is restored, i.e. before back-up batteries have a chance to fully recharge.


This is to ensure that emergency lighting can be used again within battery limits, and everyone can be safely evacuated if mains lighting is lost in future before the back-up batteries have a chance to fully recharge.[5]


A dark screening room, in a black and white photograph.


Anti-panic, Open Area Lighting


Open area / anti-panic lighting is relevant in such situations to aid in the identification of escape routes and exits and the guidance of people towards them.[6]

If you were in a large shopping centre, an art gallery, or museum, you may not be overly familiar with the layout and floorplan of the building. As such, upon hearing the fire alarm sound you would be forgiven for panicking while you try to exit.


The purpose of anti-panic lighting is to lead the public to reach clearly marked escape routes, while ensuring emergency egress is calm and swift.


The associated lux for this kind of lighting is 0.5 lx, which corresponds roughly to a clear night at full moon. This is required in areas larger than 60m² floor area or if identified specifically by the fire risk assessment as requiring safety illumination due to layout or usage.




High-risk task area Lighting


High risk task lighting is a specific type of emergency lighting provided to ensure the safety of people involved in a potentially dangerous process or situation.[7]

High risk areas can be identified by the function of the room. It may include industrial applications when staff

  • use potentially dangerous machinery, chemicals, or sharp objects,

  • are exposed to a hazardous environment, or

  • are completing a task that requires a formal shutdown procedure before an employee can safely exit the space.


For these reasons, if staff were to be dropped into darkness, the likelihood of serious injury would be high, and emergency lighting would minimise this.


Therefore, as a minimum, lighting in these areas should not be less than 15 lux and should present a standard uniformity of light across the entire space, meaning there are no areas of over-bright light or shadow. This is equivalent to good main road lighting and should initiate within 0.5 seconds after the loss of main lighting.[8]

Close up image of a silver saw with large sharp teeth


Escape Route Lighting


During an emergency, the building may experience power-loss through accidental damage, or as a safety precaution, and as such, could be plunged into darkness.


This can make evacuation difficult, time-consuming, or even impossible in worst-case scenarios. Emergency lighting is designed to activate and continue to shine in an emergency, guiding building users both to emergency exit corridors and stairways, and to the location of fire-fighting equipment, such as extinguishers, wet/dry risers, smoke risers, and other useful tools such as emergency exit keys or door controls.


As such, escape route lighting can be seen to be a fundamental requirement of fire safety provision in all non-domestic premises and public areas of HMOs, whatever their use or occupancy levels.[9]

Emergency escape lighting is necessary in the following key areas,

  • corridors, especially those that feature a change in direction, for example a corner,

  • stairways and stairwells,

  • steps between multi-level rooms, and near all ramps.

  • Alongside all fire and first aid call points,

  • internal and external exit doors,

  • escalators,

  • lifts, or elevators.

  • Near WCs, both private and public access,

  • beside large mechanical or electrical features, such as generators or plant rooms,

  • covered car parks,

  • and near large, open areas such as basketball courts, football pitches, etc.[10]

Escape route lighting should generally be between 0.5- 1 lx, depending on the environment, and should have battery back-up capabilities of 3 hours, starting in around 5 seconds of power loss.

Illuminated green emergency exit sign on a white background

How does emergency lighting work with Fire Curtains?

[11]Fire Curtains will be installed as part of a wider fire detection system, including fire alarms, smoke alarms, emergency lighting, and signage, which work together to provide building users with protected escape routes, allowing them to evacuate in a fire situation quickly and calmly.


These emergency measures work best when utilised for the whole egress route. Early warning is key for successful evacuation, so smoke and fire alarms are essential for timely egress, while Active Fire Curtains which provide a physical barrier for smoke and flames. This allows building users to feel protected and keep calm while following emergency lighting and signage to their nearest exit point.


It can be considered then, that fire protection measures, be they active or passive, should function to compliment one another to provide safety from the harmful effects of fire and smoke, rather than being considered in isolation.


Have you learned something new about emergency lighting?


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____________________________________________________________________________ [1] Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, Article 14, part 2, point h, <https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2005/1541/article/14/made> 30.03.2022 [2] Table from Orlight, ‘Emergency Lighting Guide,’ page 18, published July 2013 <https://www.orlight.com/resources/res/32/Orlight_guide_on_Emergency_Lighting_1.pdf> [3] Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Lux,’ revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, <https://www.britannica.com/science/lux> 30.03.2022 [4] Table from Globalspec.com, ‘Lux meters,’ <https://www.globalspec.com/learnmore/optics_optical_components/optoelectronics/lux_meters_light_meters> 30.03.2022 [5] Cinema image from Rawpixel.com [6] Safelincs, Introduction to Emergency Lighting, reviewed 20.08.2019, <https://www.safelincs.co.uk/introduction-to-emergency-lighting/#:~:text=There%20are%20two%20main%20types,failure%20of%20the%20normal%20supply%22.> [7] Safelincs, Introduction to Emergency Lighting, reviewed 20.08.2019, <https://www.safelincs.co.uk/introduction-to-emergency-lighting/#:~:text=There%20are%20two%20main%20types,failure%20of%20the%20normal%20supply%22.> [8] Saw image from Rawpixel.com [9] Safelincs, Introduction to Emergency Lighting, reviewed 20.08.2019, <https://www.safelincs.co.uk/introduction-to-emergency-lighting/#:~:text=There%20are%20two%20main%20types,failure%20of%20the%20normal%20supply%22.> [10] Safelincs, ‘Locations of Emergency lights,’ reviewd 01.07.2019, <https://www.safelincs.co.uk/location-of-emergency-light-units/> [11] Image from Rawpixels.com

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