In an emergency, factors such as smoke and darkness can often make finding an evacuation route difficult and can lead to fatalities. But a new intelligent “exit-locating” technology could help save lives by illuminating the path to safety.

Using sensors that detect heat, smoke and chemicals, intelligent evacuation technology determines which hallways and rooms in a structure are free of danger. The Lightstep system then calculates the safest route to travel and turns on embedded light-emitting diode (LED) panels with green arrows and red “X’s” to direct occupants to a secure location.

The building hallways look like something out of Star Trek when illuminated, but there’s nothing science-fiction about the technology. Developed by Lightstep Technologies, the system operates on the same principle as an aircraft’s emergency lighting, which directs passengers to exit doors. The difference, however, is that Lightstep’s solution thinks for itself.

“The system has a series of intelligent sensors that we developed that will take into consideration changes in the environment in milliseconds,” said Kieran Patterson, founder and executive chairman of the Belfast, Northern Ireland-based company. “If a [person] in any building is in a situation where they need to get out in a hurry, the system will analyze it and redirect that person to a safe environment.”

The technology caught the attention of Upper Iowa University President Alan Walker, who spent 30 years in the firefighting industry. Walker said in an emergency situation the most crucial factor is time, and the evacuation system could help those in a burning building get out faster.

By locating the illuminating panels on the floor, Walker said the system is intuitive to basic fire safety procedures.

“We teach children to stay low because heat rises, smoke rises and most people injured or killed in fires die because of smoke inhalation,” he said. “Having technology that helps people cut through the confusion and uncertainty and brings everything down to floor level ... really makes sense.”

The evacuation system is powered by electricity and has a six-hour battery backup that Patterson said his company was looking to improve upon. The technology can be built into existing walls and floors, and can be overridden by first responders as long as they have the access codes.

Patterson didn’t go into specifics about the system’s price tag, but said it isn’t expensive and the price is calculated on the square footage of the area covered. He also said his company’s technology is compatible with existing alarm and sprinkler systems.

In addition to fires, the evacuation technology can be modified to provide exit routes in the case of earthquakes, mudslides and other natural disasters. Patterson also said the system can be moved as needed, which could be of use in places like underground mines. Using optional radio frequency identification tags, the system can also be used by first responders in rescue efforts.

Patterson said the system can register a person’s vital signs and location in real time, so rescuers are aware of who is alive and where those people are.

Setting a National Example

Walker felt so strongly about the evacuation solution's  life-saving potential, he established a partnership between Upper Iowa University and Lightstep to install the system in three campus buildings later this year. The school’s Fayette, Iowa, campus will have the technology put into its student center, an academic building and an apartment-style residence hall.

The intelligent evacuation technology, which will be the company’s first deployment in the U.S., should be online and fully operational at the university by January 2012.

The partnership enables the university to use the technology, while Lightstep gains a model to showcase its product. Walker said that while the buildings will maintain all of their current fire safety systems, including sprinklers, smoke detectors and exit signs, he was eager to add the evacuation system as another life-saving tool.

“If you look at case studies of major fire injuries and fatalities associated with universities, it typically has been living quarters involved,” Walker said. “So I was particularly interested in getting the technology in this residency facility.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.