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Evacuating a tall building

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Evacuating a tall building

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

When it comes to evacuating a tall building all companies and organisations, providing 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 ensuring the risk level when evacuating is reduced. Evacuation procedures need to be in place along with designated trained staff that will assist in the evacuation process; those employees also need to undergo practical training in the operation of any equipment used in the evacuation. It is now the employers or service provider’s responsibility to evacuate people from a building in an emergency; it is 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. It is therefore illegal to plan a fire evacuation that relies solely upon the fire service being involved, potential outside factors such as traffic delays cannot be predicted and can affect the brigade’s response times, the buildings evacuation strategy needs to be self-contained. Employers who neglect proper evacuation measures for employees, visitors or the mobility impaired can be found guilty of failing to provide a duty of care and will face legal proceedings. Health and safety stipulate implementing the necessary certified policies and training in order to comply.

Pre-planning is essential ensuring the needs of all employees, visitors or the mobility impaired are identified and a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan known as a ‘PEEP’  or  a ‘GEEP’  General Emergency Evacuation Plan is devised by the relevant person responsible to comply with Part 2 Section 8 of the Fire Safety Order (RRO).

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 method of evacuation detailing the escape routes and identify those person(s) who will assist carrying out the evacuation and training or practice needs. It will also detail the refuge areas (this is where the mobility impaired can await assistance). The plan should be tested and used during regular evacuation drills to ensure all staff involved are aware of the procedures and receive a copy of the relevant PEEP, a copy of the document should be filed accordingly.

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 General Emergency Evacuation Plan known as a GEEP; the plan will contain the same points that are covered in a PEEP, but needs to be as robust as is practical to accommodate everybody in any potential situation.

The time required to safely evacuate a small building that is not a high rise, wouldn’t normally be an issue due to passive fire protection. Therefore high rise buildings can present a number of challenges, the most obvious one being the potential distance needed to take to travel down the stairs to exit the building. These kinds of 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 in a high rise building can range from thirty to sixty minutes allowing the responsible person adequate time to safely evacuate the people under his/her care. In such instances Evacuation Chairs have proved, all over the world, to be the most time efficient and user friendly, enabling the operator and passenger to safely exit the building. Due to the potential number of people that may require assistance, the correct type of equipment and quantity is paramount and is required by law to be implemented. These kinds of products range from Slide Sheets, Slide Pads, Evacuation Chairs or Stretchers. All evacuation aids need to be located in each designated refuge point as specified in the buildings fire strategy. Each fire escape has to accommodate able bodied people and the mobility impaired; therefore all equipment has to be readily available and easily accessible in each refuge point.

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

Evacuated people should never be left to wait for the Fire and Rescue Service unattended in a refuge point. It can be used as an area to wait until it is safe to exit the building or a place of rest. The refuge areas needs to be a safe place and must not have any adverse effect on the means of escape, this can range from a corridor, stairway or an enclosure such as a compartment, somewhere that will provide protection form the fire and smoke and should also be clearly sign posted and kept clear of obstructions, mobility impaired people can remain there until they are assisted to a final exit. Whoever accompanies the mobility impaired person, 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; a person in the refuge area needs to be able to make the necessary communication in an emergency.

The key to ensuring you are prepared for any eventuality is to plan for regular fire drills; these will all depend on the type of building and the occupancy. As a general rule, an evacuation drill should be carried out twice a year; ideally it should be done quarterly. The evacuation needs to be done in accordance with the PEEP or GEEP that was designed specifically for the building, the environment and of course the people. The fire drill 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 will be spontaneous and without warning, the only people aware of the fire drill taking place will be the organisers. The responsible person will need to record the time it takes to make a full evacuation, dependant on the type of building working with your local fire authority will help you to determine a ‘safe time’. In the case of a tall building, there is more risk involved due to the distance people have to travel to exit safely, it is therefore essential everyone is aware of the procedure, should there be an increase of people in the building, for example more staff, then the fire drills would need to be more frequent to ensure they are still being carried safely and correctly.

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

Author Mark Roberts, Director at Evac+Chair International

Mark Roberts is a director at Evac+Chair International, which has over 35 years’ experience in providing emergency advice, products and solutions. This includes advising on the legal framework surrounding evacuation planning, training and deployment.

For contact details visit the Evac+Chair International Directory Listing

Published March 2015

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