In February 2003, legendary rock band Great White began playing to a packed house at The Station nightclub in Rhode Island when the pyrotechnic stage effects suddenly ignited the acoustic foam lining the walls and ceiling of the stage. Within minutes, the club was engulfed in flames and smoke. Although there were four exits available, thick smoke made it difficult for people to find those exits. One hundred people died from fire, smoke and trampling, and 230 were injured.
Huntsville residents John and Pam Peterson had no personal connection to the tragedy at The Station, but they couldn’t stop thinking about it. “John lost sleep over that fire. It just seemed so senseless because the people simply couldn’t see the way to get out, ” says Pam Peterson. “While we were in church that Sunday, John said he had the idea that if there was a way to say, ‘Hey, go that way, ’ those people wouldn’t have died.’”
That nagging thought led to research and eventually to the development of the Emergent Lighting System, a patented emergency notification and evacuation system that uses lighting technology to keep people safe. “This system is designed to save lives, ” says Pam Peterson, CEO of Emergent Lighting Systems (ELS). “We want to use it to make an impact by making buildings safer for people in emergency situations.”
Developing a Solution
With experience in electrical engineering, law enforcement and emergency medical services, John Peterson wasn’t just distraught about the Rhode Island fire. He felt like he had to do something to prevent similar accidents in the future.
The Petersons started by undertaking research to learn about existing systems for emergency egress and discovered numerous problems. “Traditionally, we place exit signs at the top of a doorway, but smoke rises, so in a fire, people often can’t see those exit signs, ” says Austin Boyd, CEO of Whitespace Innovations, a Huntsville-based consulting company that has worked with ELS on its launch and business development. “And most exit signs are red, the same color as a flame. And red is the least effective color of light for penetrating smoke.”
John Peterson developed a color-coded egress and emergency notification system that could be used in schools, hotels, government buildings and other structures to alert occupants of fire, active shooters or other emergencies. The system can be customized to fit the needs of the building in which it is installed.
“The lights, which are located along the walkways, move when the system is activated to show people which way to get to an exit, ” Pam Peterson says. “For instance, if the fire alarm or smoke detector goes off, green lights start tracking to the nearest exit.” In the event of a power loss, white lights come on automatically and light the path, and staff members can also activate the system manually during an emergency, with different colored lights for different situations.
After developing a prototype of the system, the Petersons applied for and received a patent on their Emergent Lighting System and began building a company to market the product and accomplish their goal of saving lives. The company’s first installation was at the former campus of Catholic High School in Huntsville, and its second installation was at the newly constructed Pope John Paul II Catholic High School in Huntsville, which opened in late 2010.
The school uses blue lights for a lockdown situation, red lights for severe weather warnings and amber colored lights for other mass notifications. Every teacher can easily activate the system throughout the entire building using a wireless tag, Peterson says. For instance, if one teacher witnesses an intruder in the building, he or she can push a panic button, immediately and discreetly notifying people throughout the building with emergency lighting in the appropriate LED color. In addition, the ELS can also trigger the activation of other safety devices, such as magnetically operated locks.
Building a Company
After creating the product and acquiring a patent, the Petersons began the long process of moving from invention to launch. “All launching companies deal with what I call the valley of death, ” Boyd says. “They’ve created the product, created a prototype and have people raving about their product, but then they have to develop capital to produce inventory, create demand and find retailers to sell the product. Basically, they have to convince a relatively ambivalent world that they need this product.”
This process of cultivating a market for the new product usually takes at least one or two years, Boyd says. And by the time they reach this point, many startup companies have already used up their available financial resources to develop the product. However, “ELS took a pragmatic approach, ” Boyd says. “They were prepared to wait for sales and have spent time researching competitors and making connections in the industries they can serve.”
Company research revealed that there is no U.S. supplier of products similar to ELS, and the European products that exist do not meet U.S. building codes. As a result, ELS has begun to make headway in the market. In addition to installation in Huntsville’s Catholic High School, the ELS system has been specified into a number of buildings under construction in the Huntsville area, Peterson says.
During the past few years, ELS executives have spent time cultivating relationships with potential customers, including builders and developers in education, the hotel and lodging industry and the health care industry. As with any new product, the challenge is to make people understand that they need a new system for emergency notification and egress, Boyd says. “In most procurements, folks will say, ‘This is what we’ve always bought, ’ so they may continue to purchase red ceiling-mounted exit signs that really don’t solve a problem, ” he says. “But we’ve found that we can save lives by doing it differently, and just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean that’s the right way.”
As growing numbers of building owners and managers learn about ELS, more are expressing interest in using the system to ensure the safety of occupants in their buildings. “ELS is finding success because they took a new look at an old problem, creating a new system that was lower cost and more effective, ” Boyd says.
“It’s a great Alabama success story of smart, innovative people working to solve a problem and make the world a safer place.”
Nancy Mann Jackson and Dennis Keim are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Both are based in Huntsville.
Text By NANCY MANN JACKSON // Photo by dennis keim