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Means of escape

09 February 2017

When it comes to evacuating multi-storey buildings that are open to the public, duty-holders need to be prepared for all eventualities to ensure everyone, including the mobility-impaired, gets out safely, explains Mark Roberts

A key duty of those responsible for managing high-rise premises that are open to the public – for example, schools, hotels and shopping centres – is to ensure proper evacuation measures for all employees, visitors, students and, especially, the mobility-impaired. Failure to do so can land the duty-holder in court to face serious charges, including corporate manslaughter in workplace cases. 

In small, low-rise buildings passive fire-protection measures mean the time required to evacuate is not normally an issue. Multi-storey buildings, on the other hand, present a number of challenges, the most obvious ones being the potential distance to be covered and number of stairs to be negotiated to exit the building. 

Thorough planning is therefore essential to determine the needs of all employees and visitors in the event of an evacuation. To that end, and to comply with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO), Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs), and, where necessary, a General Emergency Evacuation Plan (GEEP), should be devised by the responsible person under the FSO.

The perfect PEEP

The PEEP is tailor-made to secure the safety of named individuals in the event of a building evacuation. It will explain the method of evacuation, detail the escape routes to be followed, identify those persons who will help carry out the evacuation, and determine training or drill needs. It will also stipulate refuge areas, where the mobility-impaired can wait for assistance to get out of the building safely. 

The PEEP will inform the subject of the plan of their responsibilities to cooperate, indicate the actions that will provide for their escape, establish what actions are required of the individual based on their level of dependency, and provide appropriate information for all concerned parties to enable them to carry out their duties in a time-conscious manner. The plan should be tested during regular drills, to ensure all staff involved are aware of the procedures and receive a copy of the relevant PEEP(s). 

Note that, when planning for an emergency in a public access building, where mobility impaired or disabled people have total access, a PEEP would not be sufficient. The responsible person would need to devise a GEEP, to accommodate the needs of everyone. 

Educate to evacuate

Under the FSO, those responsible for non-domestic premises cannot plan a fire evacuation that relies solely on the fire service being involved. Staff training is therefore key to ensuring that the risk level during evacuation is as low as possible for everyone. Those designated to assist people in need during an evacuation must undergo practical training in the evacuation plan and procedures, and in the operation of any evacuation equipment that may need to be used.

Regular fire drills – held at least twice a year – will help ensure preparedness and save time, and thus lives, in an emergency. Make sure to recreate difficult scenarios – for example, in a hotel, this could be a fire that breaks out in the early hours of the morning, when the hotel has a full guest list but a reduced complement of staff. At such times it is crucial that staff know the most effective and safest way to evacuate people –both the able-bodied and the mobility-impaired. 

Assistive equipment

In the case of the latter, an important question to consider is: can wheelchair users be accommodated with emergency evacuation chairs? If so, how might staff transfer the wheelchair user into such a device? If not, how can staff address the needs of those who do not wish to be evacuated using an assistive device?

Evacuation chairs have proved to be the most efficient and user-friendly means of enabling the operator and passenger to safely exit a building. If more than one person needs assistance, then other types of evacuation product may be required, such as slide sheets, rescue mats, or stretchers, in addition to evacuation chairs. All evacuation aids need to be located in a designated refuge point, which is specified in the building's fire strategy. Each fire exit has to accommodate both the able bodied and mobility-impaired, so all equipment has to be readily available and accessible in the refuge point.

The responsible person should therefore obtain professional advice to establish exactly what is required of them. This will involve evaluating each floor of the building to determine the most suitable type of equipment, and the quantity of each type/piece required. Sufficient devices must be located on each floor so that people do not have to re-enter the building to help others.

For more information on getting a free site survey, please visit www.evac-chair.net