Multi-storey Building Evacuation For People With Disabilities

Jeremy Mears
Thanks to legislation and best practice documents, equality of building access is a familiar concept to most built environment professionals.

In addition, many of us are familiar with the requirements of Approved Document M and BS8300 in terms of emergency egress provisions for people with disabilities. However, once you delve deeper, you begin to realise there is often a disconnect between a construction project and the post contract building management.

As construction professionals, because of the limited focus given in technical and Approved Documents, we tend to concentrate on the facilities and equipment to allow disabled people to wait temporarily, whilst assisted egress is arranged. However, it is often at this point that the management and responsibility for assisted egress sits with building managers. Another factor that often affects the quality and effectiveness of egress provision is value engineering.

Another factor that often affects the quality and effectiveness of egress provision is value engineering.

Over the past fifteen years, I have frequently audited buildings where great care and attention has been paid to detail step-free access into and around a building. However, even on egress routes from ground floor areas, these are often left with either a stepped or uneven threshold with limited level surfacing to egress. To me this is symptomatic of value engineering cost savings being applied to areas that do not form the focus of day to day access for the majority of building users.

This piece is not aimed at looking at design deficiencies of specific elements, but to consider holistically, how people can evacuate a building safely and equitably wherever possible.

We are familiar with the detail for the provision of refuges and two-way communication panels to upper floors of buildings, but often the building managers do not realise that egress from these points becomes their responsibility on handover. With refuge areas, only being defined as a space large enough for one wheelchair user, what happens if there are multiple wheelchair users heading to the same refuge? What if there is inadequate space on a stair landing to accommodate more than one wheelchair user, and who determines what happens to other people needing assistance in this scenario? We also need to look in broader terms than focusing wholly on wheelchair users. In multi-storey buildings there could be building users with heart or respiratory conditions or expectant mothers in advanced stages of pregnancy that are unable to negotiate multiple flights of stairs and may need support and confidence in knowing that in the event of an emergency, assistance will be provided for them to safely egress.

To me this is symptomatic of value engineering cost savings being applied to areas that do not form the focus of day to day access for the majority of building users.

In addition to evacuation lifts there are various technologies available that can assist egress in stairwells. However, simply purchasing units and fixing them to walls does not go far enough. Building managers and team leaders need to work with visitors and staff who may need assistance. This is generally recorded in the form of a Personal Emergency Egress Plan (PEEP).  They need to engage with possible users and trial specific products to ensure all parties are safe and confident in their use. Egress technology can range from manual evacuation chairs to fully automated stair climbers and descenders. Irrespective of a specific product, all require a degree of training and buy-in from all parties responsible for their use and execution.

It is not sufficient to rely on an evacuation lift always being available for use by all or that the fire service will be immediately available to provide a controlled and supported evacuation.

The implementation of buddy systems are also options but do not always provide a complete solution. Buddies are identified work colleagues who can assist other team members or building visitors to safely egress a building. This works if there are multiple buddies identified to cover sick leave, annual leave etc. It’s also vital that they are trained and able to use any specific egress equipment. In practice, it may be preferable for whole teams to be prepared to support specific building users whereby the responsibility can be shared.

Irrespective of a specific product, all require a degree of training and buy-in from all parties responsible for their use and execution.

For some wheelchair users, it may not be suitable or safe for them to transfer from their own wheelchair to another wheelchair or transfer unit. This highlights the need for dialogue with building users and the development of a bespoke Personal Emergency Egress Plans (PEEPs) for them. This also emphasises that off the shelf products should not be regarded as a complete and final solution for all building users.

As an accredited Access Consultant with the National Register of Access Consultants, I find this is an all too common situation. Many disabled people find themselves in a position where they are either at risk or exposed in an emergency situation, with only ad-hoc measures or the goodwill of other building users to rely on. This needs to change in the future to ensure that wherever is reasonable, the built environment is both accessible and egressable for all.

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