07 March 2022
In the event of an emergency, everyone needs to get out of the building. Niamh Tehan asks if Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) are really doing enough to keep people safe?
IN THE last five years, since the horrifying scenes that gripped the nation when the Grenfell Tower flats became engulfed in flames in 2017, more people have become aware of the horrifying consequences that can occur without the correct personal emergency evacuation plan, assisted escape device or trained and competent technical evacuation assistant. The newfound awareness of a sometimes overlooked area of health and safety has created a large improvement in companies, public spaces and residential buildings’ means of evacuation for persons who are not fully physically able but are we doing enough?
The industry of PEEPs and assisted escape devices is growing and there are a vast number of companies who are producing some amazing mobility equipment that greatly surpasses the standard ‘down and out’ friction belt chair but are buildings and their PEEPs going far enough to include these industry advances?
Are PEEPs really doing enough to keep people safe?
To begin, it is essential to point out that any plan is better than no plan so not being able to accommodate the best equipment is not an excuse to overlook the whole premise, but companies must ensure they are not cutting corners when evaluating the correct equipment and plan strategy.
The correct assisted escape device is the foundation of any PEEPs plan and can be the most difficult part to balance. When choosing equipment it is advisable to consult with a company who can offer detailed advice on the advantages and disadvantages of different models and how they will work within the building. It is advisable to find companies who can offer impartial advice on a range of manufacturers to ensure that you are being shown the full range of what the industry has to offer.
There is a tendency within some sectors to prioritise low costs over all else but in the assisted escape device industry, making the wrong decision can cost lives and very often the lowest costing pieces can be unsuitable and unsafe. Most often, the lowest costing option works out to be a standard skid evacuation chair with thin belts and a folding seat. Make no mistake, there are instances when this model of AED can provide a safe evacuation that meets current requirements, but the nature of this evacuation can be stressful, tiring and potentially harmful for operator and passenger. There is simply not enough legislative guidance on when these types of models are safe. For example, if there is a large weight difference between the operator and passenger, it will be dangerous; If the stairs have any spiral/flare the equipment can topple; there is often no brake which can cause an enormity of issues when evacuating, the chair is not optimised for user comfort so disabled or injured people can be at risk of further discomfort. These, among other facts, are not investigated enough before purchase.
Most of the low costing AEDs are manual and require a wheelchair transfer. In many cases, this is not a problem. Some evacuations will be with people who may be able to walk short distances or with wheelchair uses who are able to vacate their chair with or without assistance. However, for some, this is not a possibility. There are a number of wheelchair users who are unable to leave their wheelchair for a number of reasons. Therefore in some instances like buildings with heavy public football, specialist residential facilities or residential buildings where this criterion applies to a resident, it is essential that the equipment allows for a transfer-free evacuation.
When deciding on an AED, there is actually opportunity to cover more bases than an evacuation which can save money in the long term. Some of the electric devices can ascend and descend which allows cover for disabled persons during lift breakdowns or power cuts. Some equipment can be modified in a way so that they can be used for goods and people so that it can help staff to move heavy goods between floors.
Do we prioritise the passengers’ exit over their safety, comfort and dignity?
When we evacuate, our intention is always to get all persons out the building safely. When dealing with an evacuation of a person with reduced mobility, we must ensure that getting down and out is not the only thing considered.
Of course, evacuating safely will always be the biggest priority but if there is opportunity to do so, why shouldn’t the passengers be afforded some dignity and comfort? Assisted escape devices come in a range of designs, sizes and prices and often the least costing kit focuses solely on getting down and out. For a wheelchair user, being asked to exit your wheelchair can be extremely upsetting and can even cause further pain or injury. A problem in the industry is that often, the person who chooses the AED is not the person using it and may not understand the health complexities that arise from having to be lifted, sitting in the wrong position or not having the correct support. The standard skid chairs have a seating position that offers very little support to the body and no support for the legs which can cause extreme pain to those with more complex requirements. This can become even more of a problem when the evacuation has been completed because often, the person will have to remain in the AED until the fire service deem it safe to return to the building.
For most evacuations, the evacuee has at least one Technical Evacuation Assistant who needs to be considered in the PEEPs. In an office building, the TEA is likely to be a colleague or building employee and for the evacuation to be successful, the equipment must consider their physical strength, their stamina, and the weight difference between them and the passenger. There are a range of AEDs who don’t need these considerations to be taken due to their inbuilt safety features but for a standard friction belt chair, TEAs can be in danger if PEEPs don’t go far enough to protect them. If the only available TEAs are unable to safely utilise the equipment there must be more guidance on upgrading or changing this equipment for another model which will allow everybody to evacuate effectively.
In residential buildings, more thought needs to be given to who can be chosen as TEAs. As per the Health and Safety Act 1974 and Management at Work Regulations 1999, employers have a duty of care over their employees and cannot put them in danger. This can cause some friction when choosing a technical evacuation assistant because you could be asking an employee to re-enter a dangerous situation. For a lot of residential buildings, it is possible for the TEA to be a friend, family member or neighbour; it does not have to be a building employee. In many cases this can help to evacuate even more quickly because as we saw at Grenfell, people don’t want to leave their loved ones alone which can cause higher number of tragedies. If the loved one was trained as a TEA, they would both be able to evacuate instead of both waiting for a third party to re-enter the building and administer the evacuation procedure. There is not enough consideration given to this option and therefore there is not enough guidance for the evacuated person or the building owner to ensure that this can happen in a safe and legal way.
Whoever the evacuation assistant is, one thing that they will need is practice. Emergency evacuations can be extremely stressful and distressing situations so if the passenger and operator don’t feel confident in the equipment, a whole number of mistakes can be made. PEEPs must include practices and trial runs that happen regularly. Although some equipment does the majority of the work, there are still a number of steps that need to be worked through to maintain a safe speed and a correct posture for operator. Operators also need to be aware that if they are using a standard friction chair, they will not be able to take breaks unless they have descended to a landing due to a lack of braking system in these models. All components need time to be practiced ensuring that everybody involved feels confident in an evacuation, the alternative is that mistakes are made which could lead to a tragedy.
Mistakes could cost lives
PEEPs are a very broad topic and one thing that those making the legislations and requirements could do is to provide a lot more support and guidance for people who create these plans. It is also up to those who are purchasing the equipment to do thorough research and seek the consultancy of a person or company who is highly familiar with the different models available and how the operators, passengers and building lay out can dictate which style of assisted escape device is required.
Niamh Tehan is consultant & media correspondent at evaccess. For more information, visit evaccess.uk