Australian building legislation does not currently mandate an inclusive approach to safe evacuation of buildings. This presents as a significant risk for people with some form of disability in the event of an emergency evacuation, particularly those with a mobility impairment.
This is perhaps most pronounced in multi-level office tenancies, but similar issues exist for retailers:
What planning should be undertaken to ensure that staff and customers with disability are able to evacuate safely?
Is there an accessible path out of the building to safety?
How will people with different disabilities know that there is an emergency?
What is the role of teammates, emergency services and others?
What should be designed into new buildings to ensure people can evacuate safely?
What assistive devices are available and suitable for emergency evacuation?
Lee Wilson (2016)*Wilson, L., 2016, Evacuation of People with Disability & Emergent Limitations: Considerations for Safer Buildings & Efficient Evacuations, 2nd Edition. Viewed at https://accessibleexitsigns.com/evacuation-guide is Australia's leading authority in this area and has produced a guidebook which comprehensively discusses the legislative gaps, issues for emergency evacuation of people with disability, and provides practical recommendations.
Lee says that “Building occupants deserve to feel safe. People go about their day to day activities without putting too much thought to the emergency procedures in place within a shopping centre or retail store in which they work or visit. People assume that they are protected from harm. Unfortunately, history tells us that we need to plan for emergencies. This responsibility rests with business owners and shopping centre management to ensure that effective emergency management plans that consider the needs of all occupants have been developed.”
When developing an emergency plan he recommends that it not only considers people with disability but other people too, including the very young, older people, those injured in the emergency, pregnant women and those experiencing emotional stress.
He suggests there are a number of key factors to consider when planning for an emergency:
Ensure emergency management procedures are in place, with mechanisms to identify the needs of individuals, including employees or members of the public.
Implement tailored Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs) for employees and develop General Emergency Evacuation Plans (GEEPs) within retail spaces. Lee's guidebook includes templates for both.
Nominate Fire Wardens in all locations who can supervise the evacuation, remove any barriers and ensure people are not left behind in retail spaces, change rooms or in toilets.
Employees need to have familiarity with the emergency plans, including rehearsing worse case scenarios.
Conduct regular inspections of exit routes to ensure they are not obstructed with stock, displays or boxes.
Provide an accessible exit route that can be negotiated independently, but where this cannot be provided (i.e. on an upper level of a building), consider using other assistive devices such where evacuation lifts have not been provided.
Display evacuation diagrams showing the accessible exit routes (including identifying where exit doors, evacuation lifts, refuge areas, evacuation chairs and fire stairs are provided).
Supplement alarm notification systems with visual and audible alarm devices, including within change rooms and toilets.
Provide accessible handrails on both sides of all fire stairs.
Identify exit doors with a contrasting colour for ease of recognition.
Employees, security and centre management should always be on the lookout for unusual behaviour.
The use of security cameras is also advantageous to monitor people's behaviour and movement within exit routes, particularly important to identify people who may find the evacuation difficult.
Shops and centre management need to develop effective communication and wayfinding strategies to relay information to occupants during the emergency.
Employees with evacuation responsibilities should attend training on disability awareness and methods of assistance, including the use of any evacuation devices such as evacuation chairs or evacuation lifts. This would include all Fire Wardens and security staff.
Though the above list is not exhaustive, it aims to provide some basic steps that can be adopted to provide a safer environment for everyone should there ever be an emergency.