ARCHIVED - Landmark work "lights the way"

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October 07, 2007— Ottawa, Ontario


An NRC researcher has been officially recognized for helping to improve safety in buildings across Canada and around the world. In June 2007, Dr. Guylène Proulx received a Public Service Award of Excellence for her landmark studies on smoke alarms, photoluminescent material (PLM), and human behaviour during emergencies.

Dr. Proulx's research has raised awareness of the benefits of PLM emergency way-guidance systems. PLM can store energy from natural and artificial light, and becomes highly visible in darkness so people can safely evacuate a building that lacks power or is filled with dense smoke. In Europe, PLM has been used for decades in industrial settings, such as on North Sea oil platforms, but not in commercial high-rises. While PLM was virtually unknown in North America in the early 1990s, Dr. Proulx knew about the product, having completed part of her PhD in architectural planning in England.

Guylène Proulx receives a Public Service Award of Excellence from (left) Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet Kevin Lynch and NRC President Pierre Coulombe.
Guylène Proulx receives a Public Service Award of Excellence from (left) Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary of the Cabinet Kevin Lynch and NRC President Pierre Coulombe.

Early in her career, she was invited to participate in the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center (WTC) bombing, where several thousand office workers were forced to evacuate in total darkness. Following the investigation team's recommendations, a PLM emergency way-guidance system was installed in all WTC stairwells. This installation proved invaluable during the 2001 terrorist attacks, when virtually everyone who could escape the twin towers did.

In the aftermath of September 11th, Dr. Proulx was invited to study the evacuation process. "We asked survivors if the PLM had been useful," she says. "At least one-third of people said they had noticed the PLM in the stairwells and that it was reassuring to know they were going the right way." Today, PLM systems are required in all high-rise office buildings in New York City.

A few years earlier, Dr. Proulx and colleagues at the NRC Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) had conducted the first controlled study of PLM way-guidance systems during an evacuation – in partnership with Public Works and Government Services Canada and JALITE plc, a British firm. Their results showed that building occupants can evacuate as efficiently in a stairwell marked with PLM as in a stairwell equipped with traditional emergency lighting.

Last fall, Dr. Proulx and her colleagues conducted a second study on PLM markings to evaluate the performance of different installations. During a surprise fire drill in an Ottawa office tower, employees were videotaped going down stairwells to help NRC researchers measure their movement time and ability to find destinations. "We found that people could exit very easily and comfortably with the photoluminescent material, and we identified the best way to mark a stairwell using PLM," says Dr. Proulx.

The NRC results are now being used to develop a federal government building standard and are also being discussed by National Building Code of Canada committees. "What we've learned will not only improve the safety of Canadians but also lead to applications worldwide," says NRC-IRC Director General, Robert Bowen.

Besides advancing fire research, Dr. Proulx raises public awareness of NRC fire safety research. She has given more than 300 presentations to the scientific community and fire safety technicians; served on various boards and committees; and brought NRC's research capacity and unique expertise to public attention through a wide variety of print, radio and television media coverage.

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