The great escape
18 October 2023
Gerard Wallace explains the challenges, best practices and legal backdrop when it comes to evacuating high-rise buildings.
PLANNING FOR the safe evacuation of everyone, has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. With many commercial organisations adopting a more inclusive recruitment strategy, it is imperative that the correct health and safety policies and procedures are put in place. From improved accessibility and facilities, to having an evacuation plan that details how a mobility impaired individual will be assisted in the event of an emergency evacuation, organisations must ensure they are appropriately prepared.
Evacuating high-rise buildings
All organisations need to be prepared for an emergency evacuation and for high-rise buildings this is more complex. The height of the building and therefore the number of stairs presents a greater risk and therefore increases the need for assistive equipment, to ensure everyone can be safely evacuated. The design, construction and operation of high-rise buildings is constantly changing. However, provisions for evacuating mobility impaired people, in the event of an emergency remain largely unchanged. This leaves anyone who cannot escape via stairs without assistance, at a significant disadvantage – a point brought home at Grenfell Tower, where a disproportionate amount - 41% of residents with sensory, mobility or cognitive disabilities died due to the tragic event.
Planning ahead will save lives in the future. Having an evacuation plan that has been tried, tested and is regularly checked and updated, will ensure the correct measures are in place in order to evacuate everyone. It is imperative during the planning stage, to factor in the building and its layout. Challenges can arise when evacuating high-rise buildings, as extra time is needed to travel down multiple flights of stairs to exit buildings, leading to a prolonged evacuation time - the higher the building, the more complex the evacuation plan. This is supported by a recent study1 which showed a 70% increase in evacuation time for high-rise buildings. Indicating the importance of having the correct evacuation solution in place, to ensure a quick and efficient evacuation.
Accessibility for both employees and visitors is an important issue for any organisation. A key element of any health and safety policy is to ensure that anyone with mobility issues, can be safely evacuated from upper floors of buildings when lifts are out of action in an emergency.
When installing assistive equipment, such as an Evac+Chair, it is vital that the requirements of the building and personnel are taken into consideration when selecting the most suitable product and location. Under the Equality Act 2010, a ‘disabled person’ is defined as someone with a physical or mental impairment which has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ effect on their ability to do normal daily activities such as descending stairs unaided.
Equally, there are some medical conditions that, whilst they do not qualify as disabilities, can impede mobility, for example pregnancy, sporting injury or a panic attack brought about by an emergency evacuation. Individuals with hidden disabilities, such as hearing or health conditions impacting their ability to evacuate at speed, may also face access barriers during an emergency evacuation. With an ageing population and the retirement age increasing, it is inevitable that organisations may have employees who suffer from medical conditions like osteoarthritis and arthritis that will affect their mobility. While these and other age-related conditions could impact someone’s physical capabilities in terms of mobility, they should not be considered a bar to employment on health and safety grounds. Evacuating high-rise buildings can present many challenges, including distance needed to travel down the stairs to exit the building. Developing an evacuation plan that considers all these factors is crucial in delivering a successful evacuation, should the need arise.
When developing an evacuation plan for commercial buildings in the event of an emergency, it is vital that the correct product/(s) are selected, there is a wide range of solutions including evacuation chairs, slide sheets, rescue mats and stretchers. The use of evacuation products, not only provides a safe means of escape for the mobility impaired but also protects everyone, as a mobility impaired person evacuating without assistance may impede the whole evacuation process, and as a result put others’ lives along with their own, at risk. Each fire exit must accommodate both the able-bodied and mobility-impaired, therefore all equipment and aids must be stored and be readily available to access, in a designated refuge point specified in the buildings’ evacuation strategy.
The Regulatory Form Order for Fire Safety (2005) states, it is no longer the responsibility of the Fire Service to facilitate the evacuation of non-domestic premises. It is the designated ‘responsible person’ (the person having control of the building, or a degree of control; i.e. landlords, business owners, employers, facilities managers or risk assessors) who must ensure that everyone can be evacuated quickly and safely in an emergency.
Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers have a duty of care to assess any risks that affect the health and safety of employees and put in place appropriate procedures to be followed ‘in the event of serious and imminent danger’. The responsible person must carry out a regular review of the risk of fire on the premises and identify any issues, following this a plan must be developed to mitigate these risks, which should include the planning for the evacuation of those with disabilities.
If you are the designated ‘responsible person’ for ensuring your employees, occupants and visitors can safely evacuate a building in the event of an emergency evacuation, you need to prepare properly. Recording evacuation plans is vital, this can be done by conducting Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) and Generic Emergency Evacuation Plans (GEEPs) to identify injury and illness risks, taking action to eliminate or control those risks. For those with more than five employees, results should always be recorded.
PEEPs– A tailormade plan to secure the safety of a specific person in the event of an emergency evacuation and must be drawn up with the individual, so that the method of evacuation can be agreed.
GEEPs – A more catch-all evacuation plan for buildings, used by the public or places of work, with a transient workforce. These are focused on visitors to a building who may face access barriers and may not be able to evacuate a building unaided.
It is vital to consider the building, the personnel who require assistance and the evacuation route itself, when selecting the correct equipment. In addition, the assistive equipment must be stored in the correct location, ensuring it is easily accessible and regularly maintained. Evacuation assessments are recommended prior to the purchase of evacuation equipment.
Importance of training and maintenance
Whilst evacuation equipment plays a key role in assisting people to safety during emergency evacuations, their effectiveness depends on the training of the products, familiarising individuals with equipment usage and evacuation procedures. Training and maintenance for emergency evacuation equipment is therefore vital for ensuring the safety and well-being of individuals in times of crisis. By investing in comprehensive training and the constant maintenance of emergency evacuation products, organisations demonstrate a commitment to the safety of its individuals.
Regular maintenance ensures that all equipment remains in optimal working condition and helps address potential issues before they escalate, minimising the risk of malfunctions that could put lives in danger. This will ensure that evacuation equipment is always ready to use, and therefore reduces the chance of delays, injuries or fatalities in an emergency potentially caused by equipment failure. Purchasing equipment maintenance when buying evacuation products is a way to ensure that any warranty is valid and that should the equipment have any issues, replacements can be offered.
An individual’s inability to use the evacuation equipment may lead to further injury or hinder the evacuation process. Training equips individuals with the skills and knowledge necessary to use evacuation equipment properly. It also familiarises individuals with the equipment, instilling confidence when using the products correctly which helps minimise the risk of injury. This in turn, helps mitigate panic by providing a sense of competence and control.
1 Huang, Zhongyi, et al. "Performance of occupant evacuation in a super high-rise building up to 583 m." Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications 589 (2022): 126643.
Gerard Wallace is managing director at Evac+Chair International. For more information, visit www.evacchair.co.uk