Hope for the best, prepare for the worst, advises Evacusafe
Whilst a fire is a rare event, it’s worth remembering the impact it can cause. Official statistics show that there were 17,900 fires in buildings other than dwellings in Great Britain during 2011 – 12 resulting in the death of 25 people and injuring 1,200 people, many of them seriously. And the cost of a serious fire in a commercial building was estimated at over £75,000. It’s worth noting this doesn’t include any possible litigation that may arise from any post fire investigations or possible prosecution if you were found not to comply with the law.
You must also consider what impact these could have on your organisation’s reputation. We’ve all heard stories of business having their names vilified through social media, sometimes within hours of an event. It may mean investing a lot of time and money is required to rebuild and return your business back to the point it was at just before the fire. Is it worth not being fully prepared?
How you and your colleagues react in the event of fire depends on how well you have prepared for a fire emergency. If you’re the owner of a non-domestic premises or an employer, under The Fire Safety Order, you are ‘the responsible person’ and it falls on you to implement a Fire Emergency Plan.
But what is included in the term ‘non-domestic premises’? Well, pretty much everyone. Schools, public buildings, restaurants, shops, hospitals, leisure centres, offices – the traditional workplaces, but also the not so traditional. These include organisations such as places of worship, community centres and even some temporary structures.
One critical element in any plan is how do we evacuate the building in the event of a fire. You must ensure that where it is reasonably practical to do so; everyone likely to be in the premises, including those who are mobility impaired, can safely escape if there is a fire. The following issues need to be considered when planning an evacuation procedure for disabled people or anyone with reduced mobility.
Remember you’re planning for the exceptional and a disable person would prefer to be in control of their own evacuation as much as an able bodied person would. Don’t automatically assume because a person is disabled that they need assistance.
If you have co-workers or regular visitors to your business who have reduced mobility, then you should look to implement a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan or PEEP which explains the method or procedure of evacuation for each individual. When constructing a PEEP, the following should be used as guidance.
- Don’t treat it as a “health and safety” problem to be resolved
- See the person not the disability
- Involved the person at all stages in the development and review of their PEEP
- Ask, don’t assume what assistance a disabled person might need
- Always keep them fully informed throughout their evacuation
Provision of a fully integrated PEEP system will improve safety for everyone using the building whilst identifying any areas of weaknesses in existing evacuation plans.
If, in your business, you have visitors or infrequent users of your building, prepare a standard plan of evacuation. This Generic Emergency Evacuation Plan (GEEP) should account for the operational procedures of the building; a person’s movements within it and any options for the escape procedures available. It should comprise of a map or diagram and include information such as details of fire fighting equipment provided, location of any designated 'Safe Refuges' and types and location of emergency exits. Anyone requiring assistance can be made aware of the GEEP upon entering a building or at a reception point. You should also have this information available on your website so it can be downloaded prior to visiting your premises.
In places such as theatres, shopping centres or libraries where there isn’t a reception area, you may not be aware of anyone who requires assistance during an evacuation. It is critical therefore that your staff are well trained and can communicate the options available at the time of evacuation.
If you work in a multi-occupancy building alongside other businesses, each one is responsible for their own organisation’s Fire Plan. But it is important not to do so in isolation. Discuss and co-ordinate your evacuation plans with each other responsible person and the landlord. In this situation, it may make more sense to work together and centralise your strategies.
Under the Equality Act 2010 you are required to take reasonable measures to make the physical features of your premises accessible to enable disabled people to fully use a building. So by the very same token, it needs to be matched with arrangements for their safe exit in the event of fire. Where an employer or a service provider does not make provision of evacuation arrangements for disabled people from their premises, this is likely to be considered discrimination under the Act.
Some building adaptation may facilitate evacuation and reduce the need for personal assistance and may extend the time available for disabled people to make their own exit. For example:
Lifts: Purpose designed evacuation lifts have features and safeguards which may allow their use in the event of fire.
Doors: Some people may have difficulty opening self-closing fire-doors. This needs to be communicated to those affected in the event of a fire.
Stairwells: Escape stairwells offer protection to persons using the stairs and this increases the available escape time. It makes keeping self-closing fire-doors in the closed position and observing good housekeeping practices all the more vital.
Fire Compartmentation: Some buildings are divided into separate fire compartments and it may be possible to evacuate people horizontally, away from the emergency, into the next fire compartment.
Refuge Points: A refuge point is a temporary space for people to wait that is separated from the fire by a fire-resisting construction such as a stairwell and has access via a safe route to a final fire exit. It should not be used as a place to wait for the Fire and Rescue Service.
When preparing an evacuation plan for disabled people, it should be remembered that you are preparing for the worst case – the real thing. In these circumstances, take the time to think what is achievable and what is practical. Don’t make too many assumptions and don’t set too high an expectation.
There is a risk that a disabled person may be injured if evacuated downstairs. Some will want to take themselves out in a real emergency but may not want to during a practise drill or a false alarm. Some people may prefer to slide or move in some other unconventional way down the stairs after the main flow of people. By using a two stage approach and moving to a refuge point in the first instance, you will give yourself time to make the call, if stage two –exiting the building- is required.
For others, the ability to take themselves down and out may not be an option. To facilitate their escape, there are a number of evacuation equipment options available to move a person up or down stairs in the event of an emergency.
Evacuation Chairs – These can be categorised in two ways. A carry chair or a tracked chair.
The carry chair or transit chair is similar to the type used by the ambulance service. Its primary function is the horizontal movement of persons on level ground. However, they can be used for carrying someone upstairs, say from a basement area, to a level exit point. Also, if you have a spiral staircase to descend, or the only means of escape is via an external staircase, a carry chair is a practical option.
Keep in mind you will require 2, 3 or 4 persons to manage a carry plus all types of carry techniques require a risk assessment and moving and handling training for the operators. Other points to consider are the availability and capability of those doing the carrying and is there enough space on the stairs for everyone involved.
An alternative to the carry/transit chair is a tracked evacuation chair. These are chairs which have wheels at the base for use on level ground and a ski like track at the back for sliding down the stairs. They work by using the person’s weight and friction from the rubber track to control the descent and are designed to be operated by a single person although using a second person is advantageous, especially if there are a number of flights of stairs to travel down before exiting. Historically a basic deck chair type design, todays chairs have flat seats, arms, foot rests and over shoulder support straps providing more comfort and safety than ever before.
If the only means of escape is via an open, external flight of stairs then be cautious in selecting a tracked chair. Environmental conditions such as rain, snow, ice or even wet leaves may make operating the chair impossible on them and puts both the chair user and operator at risk. A carry chair may be more appropriate in this circumstance or alternatively, an evacuation mattress.
For some individuals, it may not be practical to use any form of seating position to aid evacuation. Those with little or no core body strength or a physical condition which prevents bending or compressing the body, will need to be in a horizontal position during their evacuation. For these individuals, you should consider the use of an evacuation mattresses or rescue-sheet. They comprise of either a semi-ridged base or enclosed foam mattress on which the person lays. Typically secured with quick release safety belts, you drag the person and device along the floor to the exit point and use their weight to slide down the stairs. For some, especially children, this can be a less stressful position to be in compare to a chair. One disadvantage of some ski-pads is its ‘one size fits all’ approach. Consider a device which allows you to adjust its features (straps, foot pocket, head support) to fit the person. This will make for a more comfortable experience of those in the device and safer and more controllable for the operator.
Remember that some, such as a powered wheelchair user, may find it extremely difficult or impossible to transfer to an evacuation device without the use of an aid, for example a hoist. Such persons will require additional assistance and may be difficult to move if they are heavy.
If such equipment is deemed the appropriate method of evacuating a disabled colleague, then look to include it and its procedure of use within their PEEP, including names of those able to assist, handling techniques and location of equipment. If it is to be used by a visitor, ensure that provision is made for the equipment to be with the persons or area they are visiting. In public access buildings, it makes sense to place the equipment at the most suitable points which allows for simple transfer to a refuge area, dependent on the buildings fire safety measures.
I’ve talked a lot about disabled persons when considering any evacuation procedure within your emergency planning but there are others with mobility impairment that you should also take into account. The following could be included in that category:
- Heart condition or disease
- On prescribed medication
- Temporarily incapacitated such as broken legs or on crutches
- Post surgery
- Hearing and/or sight impairment
- Suffering a cognitive impairment such as autism or dyspraxia.
It may not be possible to tell that a person has an impairment that affects their ability to co-ordinate themselves and staff should be aware of this and be tactful when assisting a person who may seem lost or unsure of what to do during an emergency.
Don’t forget, the key to any successful fire or evacuation plan is good communication and practice. Provision of evacuation equipment must be supported by a team of operators who are well trained and familiar with the equipment and have a good standard of equality and disability awareness. Evacuation practice should be on a regular basis and should be included in, but not solely restricted to, any fire drills for the building. If you are trained to use the equipment, playing the role of the person being evacuated will help you appreciate what it feels like in that situation and will increase confidence in using the equipment.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worse. It seems to me that this is a pretty good starting point if you’re looking at what needs to be done when writing an Emergency Plan for any organisation.
Published November 2013
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