Occupants of tall buildings put their lives in the hands of the responsible person in the event of fire, but have they covered everything necessary for a safe evacuation? Asks Mark Roberts

EMERGENCY SCENARIOS can’t be predicted. For a person with mobility impairment, the thought of descending several flights of stairs in a high-rise building can be a very daunting prospect, knowing that in most emergency evacuations the lifts are not in use and their only option is to rely on someone else to be responsible for their welfare. They are essentially putting their life in someone else’s hands.

Duty of care

When it comes to evacuating a tall building, all companies and organisations that provide services to their employees or the public need to be prepared for any eventuality. With this in mind, extra precautions need to be taken to accommodate wheelchair users and the mobility impaired, and to ensure that the risk level when evacuating is reduced. Evacuation procedures need to be in place, along with designated staff to assist in the evacuation process, who must undergo practical training in the operation of any equipment used in the process.

It is now the responsibility of the employer or service provider to evacuate people from a building in an emergency and no longer the role of the fire service to facilitate the safe evacuation of non-domestic premises, as outlined in the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 [FSO]. It is therefore illegal to plan a fire evacuation that relies solely on the fire service being involved; but the building’s evacuation strategy also needs to be self-contained because of potential outside factors, such as unpredictable traffic delays that can affect fire service response times. Employers who neglect proper evacuation measures for employees, visitors or mobility impaired people can be found guilty of failing to provide a duty of care and will face legal proceedings. Health and safety provisions stipulate implementing the necessary certified policies and training in order to comply.

Evacuation plans

Pre-planning is essential to ensure that the needs of all employees, visitors or the mobility impaired are identified, and that a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) or a General Emergency Evacuation Plan (GEEP) is devised by the relevant responsible person,
to comply with Part 2 Section 8 of the FSO.

The PEEP is tailor-made to secure the safety of the named individual(s) in the event of a building evacuation. It will explain the evacuation method, detail the escape routes, identify those person(s) who will assist in carrying out the evacuation and training or practice needs, and also detail the refuge areas where mobility impaired people can await assistance. This plan should be tested and used during regular evacuation drills to ensure that all staff involved are aware of the procedures. They should receive a copy of the PEEP and a copy of the document should also be filed.

However, when planning for an emergency in a public access building where mobility impaired or disabled people have total access, a PEEP is not sufficient and the responsible person needs to devise a GEEP. This covers the same points as a PEEP, but must be as robust as is practical in order to accommodate everybody in any potential situation.

The time required to safely evacuate a small building that is not a high-rise would not normally be an issue due to passive fire protection. However, high-rise buildings can present a number of challenges, the most obvious being the potential distance to be covered to travel down the stairs in order to exit the building. These buildings set themselves apart from others that have a single staircase, due to the time it takes to evacuate and the time required to do so smoothly and effectively. The standard fire protection provided in a high-rise building can allow the responsible person 30 to 60 minutes to safely evacuate the people under their care.

Bespoke equipment

All over the world in such instances, evacuation chairs have proved to be the most time efficient and user friendly method, enabling the operator and passenger to safely exit the building. Due to the potential number of people requiring assistance, the correct type of equipment and quantity is paramount and is required by law.

Such products range from slide sheets and slide pads to evacuation chairs or stretchers. All evacuation aids need to be located in each designated refuge point, as specified in the building’s fire strategy. Each fire escape has to accommodate both able-bodied and mobility impaired people, so all equipment has to be readily available and easily accessible at each refuge point.

What is required?

In order to comply, the responsible person should obtain professional advice to establish what exactly is required. This will involve evaluating each floor, in order to determine the quantity of each piece of evacuation equipment and its suitability – to avoid the operators having to make repeat journeys over an excessive distance and re-entering the building, there needs to be sufficient equipment in place and people willing
and trained to operate it.

Evacuated people should never be left unattended at a refuge point to wait for the fire and rescue service – it can be used as an area to wait until it is safe to exit the building or a place of rest. The refuge area needs to be a safe place and must not have any adverse effect on the means of escape. It can be a corridor, stairway or an enclosure, such as a compartment that provides protection from fire and smoke, and should be clearly signposted and kept clear of obstructions.

Mobility impaired people can remain there until they are assisted to a final exit, and the person accompanying them, as identified in the PEEP, needs to report the location of that person to the responsible person in charge of the evacuation. It is essential that all refuge areas have access to an effective communication link to a fixed or mobile staffed area, so that a person in the refuge area is able to make the necessary communication in an emergency.

Regular drills

The key to ensuring that you are prepared for any eventuality is to plan for regular fire drills, which depend on the type of building and its occupancy. As a general rule, an evacuation drill should be carried out twice a year and ideally quarterly. The evacuation needs to be carried out according to the PEEP or GEEP that was designed specifically for the building, the environment, and of course the people.

It will also involve using the relevant equipment installed, the elevators will not be in use and everyone will evacuate to the designated refuge area. The fire drill is spontaneous and without warning – the only people aware of the fire drill taking place are the organisers. The responsible person needs to record the time it takes to make a full evacuation, dependent on the type of building – the local fire authority can help to determine a ‘safe time’. More risk is involved in the case of a tall building due to the distance people have to travel to exit safely and it is therefore essential that everyone is aware of the procedure. Should the number
of occupants (such as staff) increase, the fire drills would need to be more frequent to ensure they are
still being carried out safely and correctly.

An emergency evacuation can happen at any time without warning and the best way of dealing with these situations is to be prepared. This is vital throughout, from assessing the building layout and appointing the designated responsible person to practising regular fire drills, and will ultimately save time and lives in the future

Mark Roberts is a director at Evac+Chair International

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