Six Tips to Safely Evacuate Individuals With Disabilities

Winter 2014

If you had to evacuate one of your buildings right now, are you sure that everyone inside who might have a physical or cognitive disability would be able to exit safely and quickly? 

Richard King, general manager with Avison Young in South Florida, offered six suggestions to ensure the swift evacuation of challenged people in an emergency.

1) Create a comprehensive evacuation plan for the building. If one already exists, review it and update it as necessary. 

King said the priority in the evacuation plan is to identify everyone in the building who has limited mobility, particularly those who rely on wheelchairs. Stairway evacuation chairs can be used to evacuate most of these people, but they require another one or two people to handle them. And they are not always the answer.

“At one property in Tampa, Florida,” King noted, “we had to use an elevator because of the complex nature of the person’s [disabilities]. He had an oxygen system tied into his wheelchair, which meant that we could not remove him from the wheelchair. What our evacuation plan called for, in his case, was to assign one person to a dedicated elevator to go up to his floor and immediately bring him out of the building.” 

An effective plan also must address the needs of people who are visually, aurally and cognitively challenged. King said that to accommodate the visually challenged, most codes call for elevator and floor signage in braille. For the hearing challenged, strobe lights that flash during an emergency typically are required by code. A “floor warden” should be assigned to each cognitively disabled person, to ensure that he or she is accompanied safely out of the building.

2) Review the plan with all tenants, ensuring that they identify those within their space who need special assistance and the type of assistance they require. 

King recommends building safety drills to prepare everyone for an emergency. He prefers at least four drills a year, one every quarter. Where it is not possible to have four drills a year, King suggests holding “tabletop” drills. When working with key people on a particular floor, for example, he recommends announcing that there is a fire, then reviewing what everyone needs to do. 

“Turn actual drills into a social event for building tenants,” suggested King. “Have an ice cream vendor out in the parking lot, so that tenants can enjoy a treat while everyone is being accounted for at their rallying points.”

King said building managers should hold special practice drills for individuals who will be removing mobility-challenged people from the building. If the mobility-challenged person does not want to participate in the drill, recruit a stand-in. 

3) Assign primary and back-up floor wardens for each floor in the building. 

These individuals can be drawn from the ranks of both tenants’ and building staff. 

“During an evacuation, as emergency vehicles arrive,” said King, “floor wardens should continue to evacuate people until they meet up with fire fighters. In addition to the wardens, a property management staff point person would be the coordinator in the lobby to meet the fire department, give them a SITREP [situation report] and let them know how much of the building has been evacuated.” 

4) Check building life safety systems with the vendor who maintains them and with the local fire marshal.

Naturally, all life safety systems — including fire detection and suppression equipment as well as power and communication systems — need to be checked on a regular basis. Fire marshal inspections typically are required by law, but building management also should go through all systems with the vendor maintaining these systems. 

5) After a building has been refurbished, recheck all monitoring systems and signage to ensure that they reflect the current building configuration.

“One problem that I have seen,” noted King, “is that a building has been modified in some way, but no one has modified the fire panel. That means that an alarm could indicate that there is a fire on the sixth floor east, when in reality the fire is on the sixth floor west. Recheck everything after building refurbishment.”

6) Train lobby personnel to be alert to all visitors who might need assistance in an emergency.

That includes pregnant women in their third trimesters. King said that although such a woman is not disabled, she might need help in an evacuation from the 50th floor.  

For more information:

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers a guide, “Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities,” that includes a four-page checklist to help create an emergency evacuation plan.