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December 26, 2012 -
Ensuring the safety of people with disabilities during a fire must be part of a fire/life safety plan and is often specific to a given building. Years ago, it was acceptable to tell people requiring additional assistance to evacuate to wait in a staging area, such as a stairwell landing, with the idea being that first responders would take them down the stairs. This approach is no longer acceptable. Instead, each person should have a personalized evacuation plan which takes into account his or her needs.
Facility managers will have to exercise tact when approaching individuals about evacuation planning. Not all people who will require additional assistance are willing to admit it. Others may have never considered they might need additional assistance. Consulting with human resources and/or the individual's manager on how to proceed should be considered.
Not all disabilities are obvious or visible. Asthma or a heart condition might impair a person's ability to self-evacuate but nobody but the individual might know about it. Mobility challenges might also be temporary, such as a sprained ankle or someone in the third trimester of pregnancy. Again, individuals might not have their ability to walk down flights of stairs in an emergency front of mind during such times in their lives nor might they consider themselves disabled.
One strategy might be to ask all building occupants regardless of ability to create a personal evacuation plan on a periodic basis after presenting to them a whole spectrum of hypothetical situations in which someone might be considered disabled for the purposes of evacuation. This approach will capture more special needs than the facility manager can individually judge and will engage occupants in being responsible for their safety.
One thing facility managers should remember to include in the plan is how people will move to safety once outside of the facility. For example, if an individual uses a mobility scooter, how that person will get around without the scooter once outside the building or how to get the scooter out of the building at the same time needs to be part of the plan.
The National Fire Protection Association developed a document in 2008 entitled "Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities," which provides evacuation information for people with mobility, visual, hearing, speech and cognitive disabilities. The guide can be found at www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/forms/evacuationguide.pdf and includes a checklist that facility managers and people with disabilities can use to design a personalized evacuation plan.