Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat
Intelligent Egress Workshop Tackles Tough Fire-Safety Issues in China
September 21, 2016
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BEIJING – About 40 participants joined “Intelligent Egress in High-Rise Buildings – What Does the Future Hold?”, co-organized by CTBUH, United Technologies Research Center (China), and Institute of Public Safety of Tsinghua University. The day-long workshop examined some of the attendant issues and challenges accompanying the push to build ever-taller and more complex buildings, when it comes to safely evacuating those buildings.
In essence, “intelligent egress” refers to an integrated set of technologies and approaches to make building evacuation more effective and efficient. This can include ventilation technologies to isolate and control hazardous fumes and smoke, use of elevators for efficient vertical transportation in the buildings, illuminated directional signage that proactively adapts to the real location of hazards and people, directional audio guidance and mobile devices that can both guide their carriers to safety, and help first responders locate the device carriers in an emergency.
Murilo Bonilha, UTRC China, helped lead the seminar.
“Because buildings are so complex now, we need to be able to plan the evacuation routes with use of elevators and identify people who have difficulty evacuating, to give priority to them, for instance,” said Dr. Murilo Bonilha, General Manager, United Technologies Research Center China (UTRC China), one of the seminar’s leaders. “We also have to isolate the threat.”

Bonilha and Dr. Zhen Jia, Group Leader of Decision and Control System Group, UTRC China, presented an overview of UTRC’s work in this area, which includes its parent company United Technologies’ portfolio of building automation and vertical transportation products. UTRC tests American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)elevator code for Occupant Evacuation Operation (OEO) in its physical elevator test towers in Japan, as well as horizontal intelligent egress with system integration and customized dynamic guidance in its UTC CCS Shanghai Research and Design Center. It has also has done many computer simulations of people flow and behavior in egress situations. However, Bonilha noted that UTRC does not yet have a fully integrated “product” when it comes to comprehensive intelligent egress. The bespoke nature of the necessary integration means each building’s intelligent egress framework has to be custom-built, which requires an owner with foresight and commitment.
The day-long workshop examined some of the attendant issues and challenges accompanying the push to build ever-taller and more complex buildings, when it comes to safely evacuating those buildings.
We need to run proof of concepts using computer simulation or on simpler sites like in one of our engineering office buildings or on an elevator test tower before we can set up the system in super tall or mega tall building. We have already set up proof of concepts but in order to move from proof of concept to full system demonstrations, which are quite complex and expensive, we will need to have one developer coming to us and say ‘let’s test this’. Tall buildings are like Formula One racing – a venue for people to push the limits. It will only be a matter of time before somebody comes to us and says, ‘I want to do this’.

A truly comprehensive understanding of the intricacies of the relationships between building systems – and between humans – will be a requirement for avoiding tragedies in the future, organizers said. This will require considerable research and some changes in attitude as well. For instance, the hard-wired maxim “do not use the elevator in the event of fire” may need to be discarded, as codes in the U.S. and also International Building Code (IBC) now allow for evacuations via elevators that meet certain requirements.

But the current codes and fire safety practices in China still leave major gaps, noted Lexiang Zhang, Secretary General, China Elevator Association.

“Under code, we are supposed to have a dedicated fireman’s elevator, but really it is just an ordinary elevator, which, when the fire alarm is pulled, returns to a dedicated place,” Zhang said. “There is no evacuation means dedicated for firefighters. To do that, you need ladders, fire doors, etc. In China, real estate developers control everything, and want everything for cheap. As a related example, when cheap insulation is used, it can easily propagate fire.”
Attendees throughout the workshop discussed implications of, building code, elvator strategies, safety services, and more.
Zhang said improved dialogue between fire authorities, owner / developers, architects and suppliers would be needed to realize effective egress strategies in high rises. In particular, a theme that resounded throughout the seminar was that, due to structural / organizational issues, there was a lack of communication between privately-owned, and even state-run research organizations, and the fire departments themselves. In China, the Ministry of Construction oversees building research, but the Ministry of Public Security oversees emergency services, which ultimately give approval to safety features in buildings.

“An elevator that goes 10 stories costs 100,000 RMB – that’s how much one square meter of real estate costs in Beijing,” Zhang said. “Why do we spend so little money on this critical component of safety? We would like to change / promote the code, and work along with engineers’ societies, to get the code approved, and to make the public and architects aware of this issue.”
Research on a number of tall building case studies were presented.
Fang Li, Executive Vice President, China Operations and Business Development, Jensen Hughes, also provided some insights on the code as currently written.

“Fire code in China is mandatory,” Li said. “But it is the minimum for fire life safety, and not suitable for high-rise buildings. When designing a high-rise fire safety strategy, you have to have discretionary approval of extra protections. It requires a modification, each time.”

Li demonstrated research that showed the degree to which elevator egress would help speed evacuation times in well-known buildings. In the Wuhan Center, with a rated capacity of 22,250 people, it would take 2 hours and 14 minutes using the stairs alone; combining the stairs and elevator as evacuation tools, it would take 1 hour and 44 minutes. At the Shanghai Tower, 34,470 people could be evacuated in 2 hours, 18 minutes via stairs alone, while elevators used in combination with stairs would reduce the time to 1 hour, 48 minutes. But first, the code would have to be amended to permit these scenarios.

Participants also learned about some fascinating behavioral research in the egress field, particularly that conducted by Prof. Hui Zhang, Deputy Director, Institute of Public Safety Research at Tsinghua University. Prof. Zhang’s team examined some particularities of high-rises and the psychology of large groups in China.
Because there is a strong cultural tendency to “follow the leader” in China, it behooves building owners and fire safety officials to invest considerable effort in identifying fire wardens for high-rises, Prof. Zhang said. Additionally, the mandated presence of “refuge floors” – non-occupied areas on transfer or mechanical floors where large groups are meant to take shelter and phase their evacuation, using elevators serving only those floors in emergency mode – means there are additional considerations about mass psychology that need to be made when designing egress strategies and systems.
The event was co-organized by CTBUH, UTRC, and the Institute of Public Safety of Tsinghua University.
Over two years, Prof. Zhang’s research team worked with UTRC China team to conduct extensive studies of volunteers, including analyzing their social media behavior and networks, IQ tests, and MRI brain scans, in addition to running many fire drills with enhanced technology, such as Google Glass, which tracked their eye movements. Besides unintentionally exposing some romantic relationships among the participants, the findings showed that high-rise evacuations actually benefit from having large numbers of people, as individuals relying only on signage can become confused and lost. Additionally, the research showed that people are more likely to direct their eyes at other people wearing bright clothing, or who are known to them, than they are to directional signage, which contradicted the same subjects’ answers to survey questions.

“We learned that people move faster once they find the ‘right’ person -- someone they know,” Prof. Zhang said. Nevertheless, “having an electronic sign in the elevator lobby that shows when the elevator is coming, and how many people it can take, can help dispel panic and influence decisions to take the stairs instead. High-rise evacuation is more of a collective decision process than in a lower building. This is why we have to take so many of these factors into account.”

Attendees also heard from researchers from the University of Science and Technology China (USTC), UTC Gulf Security Technology (GST), the Shenyang, Shanghai and Sichuan fire research institutes, and Otis China Engineering.

Weiguo Song, associate professor, University of Science and Technology of China, showed how his team calculated “emotion propagation” (the tendency to panic) spreading through buildings, and some theories about how this rate could be reduced or quelled.
There were about 40 event participants of “Intelligent Egress in High-Rise Buildings."
Hairun Wang, software engineering manager, and Edward Zhang, program manager, UTC Gulf Security Technology, introduced GST’s intelligent egress system product and also described how to use modern software development technologies such as APIs and Web services to better integrate signal and power technology for centrally controlled and powered emergency lighting systems. This is a crowded but fragmented field, with more than 100 competitors, Wang said.

Otis China Engineering’s Andrew Yang introduced the elevator dispatching control logic defined in ASME code for OEO, and illustrated how this will affect elevator system design to meet the code requirements.

The Sichuan Fire Research Institute’s Xuechao He described how requirements and practices for high rises already in place in Japan, Germany and Australia would be applicable in China, particularly with respect to requiring fire doors on all stairwells, and evacuative operation of elevators that is considerably more dynamic than what is currently allowed.

Chunyu Yu of the Shenyang Fire Research Institute focused on research on the importance of sound in navigation, particularly when smoke impairs vision. Yu reported that directional sound technology can reduce evacuation times by up to 75% in the presence of smoke, and 35% in clear-visibility situations. However, in order to be effective, the decibel range and frequency of the directional sound beacons must be calibrated to work with the fire alarm and public-address systems that are also critical for safe evacuation, he said.

Although the issues presented certainly encompassed more complexity than could be resolved in a day, a consensus of sorts was reached at the end of the seminar. The attendees agreed that the best way to advance the cause of intelligent egress was to have more participation and direct dialogue with local fire authorities, who ultimately have authority to approve new strategies. Despite the diversity in the room, this was the one important constituency not represented.
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Fan, Weicheng 范维澄 Tsinghua University
Zhang, Hui 张辉 Tsinghua University
Bonilha, Murilo 白沐凡 United Technologies Research Center, China
Jia, Zhen 贾真 United Technologies Research Center, China
Song, Weiguo 宋卫国 University of Science and Technology of China
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