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Helping disabled people escape

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technical & practice

Historically, evacuation of disabled people from public-access buildings has been a contentious subject. Many building owners have preferred to restrict the numbers of disabled people in their building or ignore the subject completely.

The alternative is for them to take hold of the problem and produce an evacuation plan which takes advantage of the building form and blends this with their management of the building. With the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, which now outlaws refusal of service to people with disabilities and in 2004 brings in the requirement for removal of physical barriers, building owners and developers will have to produce a plan that ensures safe evacuation of disabled people from their building. Planning should be in consultation with the fire authority, and the fire service should be aware of the operational procedures.

Approved Document M and BS 5588: Part 8 both say that little special structural provision should be needed to enable evacuation of disabled people. Means of escape can entail some structural provisions, such as lifts, refuge areas and ramps, as well as management procedures, such as assisted escape. With minimum additional provision and good planning in the design stage, it is easy for escape to be designed into the management plan of the building. However, for this to be implemented by management it is necessary for them to understand the capabilities of the building.

Modern fire-engineering methods can reduce the requirement for management action, which is important with the limited staff numbers available in public-access buildings such as museums and theatres. The use of compartmentation, sprinkler systems, intelligent alarm systems, electrical wiring localised to each compartment, smoke control, etc, can all contribute to a safe evacuation, enabling a flexible response to different situations.

In any escape, it is as important for disabled people to have choice as it is for others. There is a range of evacuation options available in any building. Disabled people's preferred option is horizontal evacuation to the outside of the building or to another fire compartment or to a fire evacuation lift. If these are not available, or out of action, it may be necessary to carry a person with a mobility problem up or down an escape stair.

Phased evacuation in larger buildings, by transferring disabled people to an area within unaffected fire compartments and thence out via lifts in these areas, vastly improves the situation for management. One member of staff can be used to guide a number of people to safety, whereas carrying someone down stairs may require three or even more staff.


Where disabled people have to be evacuated, a refuge area should be provided where they may:

wait for the lift, which will be controlled by the evacuation managers

meet the designated people allocated to guide or instruct them

where necessary, wait for assistance to be carried down or up stairways, after the main evacuation.

(Secondary refuges are areas in a safe fire compartment where a person can wait for the main evacuation to take place prior to them entering the main refuge.)

In public-access buildings, people may be unfamiliar with the building layout and are unlikely to know the evacuation procedures. A first step is to publish the evacuation plan for all people using the building and to display a sign, say at the entrance payment point, offering disabled people an evacuation plan.

Additionally, refuges should be equipped with a means of two-way communication to the control point so that management can be advised that there is someone waiting for assisted escape, as well as to pass on instructions. And in larger, more complicated buildings it may be appropriate to provide a cctv system so that the control centre knows exactly what is happening in the refuge.

Horizontal evacuation

During horizontal evacuation, escapees are directed to fire escapes that lead to adjacent compartments in a different fire zone (on the same level). Once within these fire compartments, the disabled people can evacuate by lift.

Evacuation by lift

Firefighting lifts can be used to evacuate disabled people even when people are in the first stage of an evacuation. Refuges should be allocated adjacent to the lift, which will be controlled by management or the fire service. Such refuges can be provided simply by allocating enough space at the head of the stair, or by provision of space in the adjacent safe compartment.

People generally are not used to the idea of using lifts during an evacuation. It is essential that management consider this when writing their evacuation plan. Visitors unfamiliar with the building can first be guided to the refuge before evacuating by lift.

Where a building has a phased evacuation, the power supply may allow management to control lifts separately for each phased area. Thus horizontal evacuation from the affected area can be combined with lifts functioning in another area of the building. This reduces the potentially high staffing provisions for carry-down within the building. Where horizontal evacuation to lifts is identified as the preferred option, there is always the back- up option to carry-down the nearest escape stair should the lift be affected by the fire.

Platform lifts can be used in evacuation, though they will require a secondary power supply.

Evacuation by stairs

This is often required in the evacuation of disabled people. It can take place on any evacuation stair. The management plan must set out the procedure to provide carry-up or carry-down. Staff should be identified and trained to carry disabled visitors on the evacuation stair. For a fire incident, the teams meet in a pre-agreed place, which may be a designated refuge point.

Carry-down requires two or three people to carry a person who uses a wheelchair. Evacuation chairs can also be used in carry-down. The disabled person transfers on to an evacuation chair - which is a cross between a deck chair and a sledge. It is then slid down the stairs by a trained person.

Carry-up can require two, three or in some cases four people to carry the wheelchair user up the stairs. This is very difficult and should only be used as a very last resort.

Use of phasing

Where a building has a two-phased alarm system, it will sometimes allow disabled people to be evacuated into another fire zone. The voice alarm system should include instructions for disabled people so that they can move to a refuge to be guided to the adjacent fire compartment.

Personal evacuation plans

Personal emergency egress plans (peeps) are written by management and based on the structure of the building and the provisions detailed within the management plan. They explain the method of escape to be used from each area of the building. They are available to all staff and visitors with varying impairments that require assistance to get out of the building.

Through formulating peeps, management become aware of the amount of staff support required for each evacuation.

Disabled people prefer to evacuate horizontally or by lift, and indeed many are at greater risk when being carried down stairs than from the fire itself - an issue for management when writing evacuation procedures.

It is essential to think beyond the needs of wheelchair users and other mobility-impaired people. When I was working for Leeds City Council I found that many people who I had not expected to did request egress plans. These included people with hearing impairments, visual impairments, asthma and emotional problems. Good building design can reduce their need for help. The management plan should include provision for them.

The key to making the building provision and management plan work effectively in an emergency is good staff training. Staff should be given the knowledge to understand the needs and abilities of disabled people and be well practised in the evacuation procedures. Often, ignorance and inexperience cause uncertainty among staff in coping with an emergency. My experience of training staff is that there is a steep learning curve, but willingness to be of help once they understand what is required of them.

I believe that we are entering a new era in planning the evacuation of disabled people in both new and existing buildings. Future building managers will welcome knowledge from designers of what their buildings are capable of so that they can design evacuation procedures which will give them peace of mind.

Su Peace is an access consultant with Buro Happold Consulting Engineers

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