Evacuating people requiring assistance

This Issue This is a part of the Passive fire protection feature

By - , Build 171

With changes to the law, there’s a good argument for businesses to perform scenario-based trial evacuations to ensure they can evacuate everyone, including people requiring assistance, in the event of a fire.

SINCE THE REVISED evacuation regulations came into effect on 1 July 2018, there have been numerous discussions about how persons requiring assistance should be managed.

Are scenario-based trial evacuations helpful?

Under the Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fire Safety, Evacuation Procedures, and Evacuation Schemes) Regulations 2018, it is no longer acceptable to utilise Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) support as part of a routine evacuation strategy.

Other legislative controls held by FENZ, such as the power to revoke schemes that do not work in a given situation, must also be considered.

This leads me to ask – should we be performing scenario-based trial evacuations to develop and test the most practical solutions for meeting the needs of those requiring assistance? Would this also ensure our approved evacuation schemes include the best strategies and put occupants in the best position to save lives in the event of a real evacuation?

Get it right from the start

When evacuation planning or emergency management of a building is requested, one of the first questions often asked is, ‘How many evacuation chairs do we need?’

Let’s take a few steps back to the very beginning. What we should be asking is whether the building is existing or a new build. We should be assessing the end use, carefully considering the building design and the occupants.

If the building is still at concept stage, we can consider a design that’s fit for purpose and not merely meeting minimum Building Code and regulatory requirements. We could look at allowing the building to help us evacuate, by incorporating evacuation lifts, integrating ramps and including a whole range of solutions that not only alert occupants to an alarm, but also guide them to a safe place.

With any building, we need to assess the best way to notify occupants of an event and to assist them to a place of safety. By default, we typically use an audible alarm, some exit signs and a warden or assigned person to usher the occupants appropriately.

Occupants have a myriad of needs

But for all our planning, what works well in one situation may not give us good outcomes in another.

Imagine, for example, a situation where, to meet the needs of occupants with hearing difficulties, conventional strobes are installed throughout the building to supplement standard audible alarms. What about other occupants with epilepsy whose sensitivity to strobe lighting makes them prone to seizures?

In relevant buildings, most people are aware of the 6-monthly trial evacuations. Usually someone with a key turns on the fire alarm sounders, times how long it takes everyone to clear the building and confirms no one was injured before letting the occupants return.

The facilitator may be approached by an occupant who reports a wheelchair user left stranded in a stairwell or that an individual with a visual impairment remained at their desk as it was too dangerous for them to take part.

Are we, as a profession, comfortable saying this is acceptable practice – that in a real-life emergency it will all come together and these occupants will get out safely?

Collaborate on personal emergency evacuation plans

When someone has a physical condition where they may require assistance in an emergency, they or their carers are usually very aware of their limitations and have identified what support they would require, if any. So, how do we evacuate a person who requires particular assistance?

Ask them, then collaborate with them to develop a personal emergency evacuation plan tailored to cover all points within the building. Once this is agreed, share it appropriately. Where the use of equipment is suggested, assess its appropriateness for both the individual and any situations likely to arise and identify related maintenance and training requirements.

Train for the unforeseen

Also consider whether the needs of people requiring assistance would be different outside a managed environment – for example, in the relative chaos of a busy shopping mall. Again, in my experience, when people are out visiting, shopping or attending an appointment, they’ll generally be either independent or will have the support they need with them.

There will always be situations we can’t plan for, but this can be addressed by training individuals to deal with unforeseen situations as they arise. They need to have practical experience in thinking on their feet and dealing with possible scenarios under pressure.

There’s also no harm in highlighting the need to be prepared to the general population – as with Civil Defence and their earthquake preparedness strategies.

Carry out scenario-based drills

So, should we be carrying out scenario-based drills? If it was your building and you were the owner of the evacuation scheme, would you like to know that every occupant within the building could and would be evacuated?

To prove there is a functioning procedure in place and allow all occupants to take part, we should be carrying out scenario-based drills. This is not only best practice, but it may also be the best way to fulfil obligations under the evacuation regulations for everyone to participate.

There is also a duty to ensure that emergency procedures work, equipment is maintained and functioning at all times and staff are able to use any equipment provided.

While there is no formula to determine what equipment or resource is needed to assist an effective evacuation of everyone, a robust, well tested and maintained procedure helps ensure you have covered all requirements before an emergency.

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