I often wonder how in the world exits can be blocked, or have hardware that has been modified and will not allow egress – sometimes for YEARS – without anyone noticing.  I think the answer may have something to do with today’s Quick Question:

What is “learned irrelevance” and how does it affect doors in a means of egress?

When writing about egress, I have mentioned before that building occupants often try to exit the same way they entered a building.  Under normal circumstances, this isn’t typically a problem, but in an emergency it can be crucial to know where the closest exit is located – and use it.  However, during past fires and other events where emergency evacuation was needed, we have sometimes seen building occupants pass available exits and head for the entrance.  If the normal route is blocked, the results of this familiar pattern can be fatal.  Some exits may even have signage or alarmed/delayed egress hardware that discourages the use of the egress door.

According to the book Egress Design Solutions: A Guide to Evacuation and Crowd Management Planning By Jeffrey Tubbs and Brian Meacham, learned irrelevance is the inability to effectively respond to previously irrelevant information.  This can cause building occupants to ignore safety features that they see every day but rarely use – like emergency exits.  When coupled with the behavior of moving toward the familiar, this can lead people to exit a building the same way they entered.  A 2001 study demonstrated learned irrelevance with regard to emergency exit signage, and the idea of dynamic exit signage was discussed in an episode of NFPA Learn Something New.

The International Fire Code (IFC) Commentary also references the term “learned irrelevance”:

The management of occupants is primarily moving them away from the hazard. Verifying that enough exits have ample capacity, are immediately accessible, adequately arranged, appropriately identified and suitably protected are only the first steps toward achieving functional life safety. Occupants must know not only where exits are, but also when and how to use them. For instance, studies have shown that people have a “learned irrelevance” to emergency exits. Learned irrelevance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when a person is exposed to a stimulus but usually does not need to respond to it. Because of this phenomenon, most occupants are likely to exit the way they have entered, whether it is the correct way or not; therefore, beyond designing the building with an adequate number of exits, a method of encouraging the use of the best exits must be developed. Identifying dangerous conditions, deciding how to act and responding appropriately and promptly are essential.

The possibility that building occupants will experience learned irrelevance regarding egress doors makes it even more important that we all make a conscious effort to locate the nearest exit whenever we are in a building, and ensure that the exit is available for egress.  It also underscores the importance of fire/evacuation drills to acquaint building occupants with the concept of using the nearest exit.

What do you think?  Are there other ways to overcome learned irrelevance and help to ensure that building occupants will take the safest route during an emergency?

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