4 tips on evacuation
1. Tools Available to Use During Fire/Life Safety Evacuation
Today's tip comes from Robert Solomon, division manager for Building and Life Safety Codes at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), and covers some of the considerations to keep in mind regarding the evacuation of disabled individuals from your facility during fire/life safety events.
Stair descent devices are one way people with disabilities can be evacuated from a building. These devices are defined by the NFPA as portable devices whose rate of descent can be controlled to transport an individual with disabilities. The devices, Solomon says, typically only require one or two people to operate.
Facility managers must also be aware of requirements for "Area of Refuge" spaces. Recent changes to the NFPA codes require a two-way communication system to be provided at elevator lobbies and other areas of refuge, allowing an individual who needs assistance with the elevator to be in contact with first responders and the facility management team, Solomon says.
Elevators are not typically used in fire event evacuations, but are available during other events. However, the 2012 edition of the NFPA codes includes a new section on the use of elevators as part of an evacuation package and planning, Solomon says. The new section, which is not exclusive to people with disabilities, is intended to facilitate the evacuation or relocation of occupants on and in the immediate vicinity of the floor that's on fire.
2. Evacuation Planning for People with Disabilities
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.
3. Elevator Evacuation Closer to Practical Application
The industry is moving ever closer to practical application of using elevators for emergency evacuation. It has been determined in the 2009 NFPA code annex that elevators can be used as a means of egress in very tall buildings, as it can greatly shorten the time for a total building evacuation.
In the 2012 code, it was moved into the main body of the code. The infrastructure and hardware criteria have been established. What is being worked out is the communication piece to tenants. This includes signage to mark the elevator and also the proper notification modes, frequency and messages to provide in an emergency in regards to the evacuation elevator.
The final report by the Fire Protection Research Foundation was issued the first week of January and final elevator messaging recommendations will be worked on in the coming months, Robert Solomon, division manager for Building and Life Safety Codes, at National Fire Protection Association. However, even though the messaging is not yet standardized, there is enough guidance in the code for projects to move forward, Solomon says.
4. Calling Dibs on Evacuation Assembly Points
Emergency response plans often include an assembly point where facility occupants will gather once they have evacuated. In a suburban area, this can sometimes be the far end of the facility's parking lot, if it is large enough. In more densely populated urban areas however, facility executives should be mindful that they might not be the only facility to have a particular assembly point in mind.
In Chicago, for example, Millenium Park is a large open space in the heart of downtown. However, if all of the high rises in its vicinity are planning on using it during an emergency, even that large park will quickly fill beyond capacity during a wide-reaching event.
As part of emergency response planning, facility executives should reach out to neighboring buildings to make sure everyone is not planning on using the same landing spot. And if your facility is the one with the appealing courtyard or parking lot, it would be good thinking to reach out to neighbors to see if any of them have slated your space as an evacuation spot before several hundred people suddenly camp out on your doorstep without warning.
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