Building Fire Escape Design Construction Essay

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Part A - The design of means of escape from buildings often assumes that all the people escaping will be able-bodied. There is increasing concern that disabled people are not well catered for in fire situations. Discuss the problems presented by buildings in terms of design and management for people with different types of disability in a fire situation.


Since the introduction of Disability Discrimination Act 1995, It has become a requirement to allow safe access into a building for disabled persons. This also included safe means of escape in the event of a fire. Even for buildings with low risk of fire, it is important that all people within that building can reach a safe area within 3 minutes (Kent 2007).

It is often the case that buildings are designed with a lack of thought of how disabled people will escape the building in an event of a fire. This problem, only, in recent years has started to be addressed in the design of new buildings and also the upgrade of existing buildings. This is to make our existing building more accessible to disabled people. By doing this means that the number of disabled people in the building will increase, therefore, a fire management plan that incorporates this change is required, this plan and assessment may require the adjustment of the building in several areas.

In this assignment, I intend to identify some of the problems that disable people will have when evacuating a people. Discuss the various issues that are identified in new and existing buildings when considering the evacuation of disabled occupants. From this I can then discuss the various systems that can be introduced to a building in order to overcome the difficulties identified and provide adequate escape or safety to disabled people

Disabilities and Evacuation

When designing new buildings it is imperative that the designer takes into account the evacuation of occupants, including those that are disabled, at the earliest stages. By considering this at the beginning of the design stage will help avoid the requirement for any additional management systems that may be necessary to evacuate a building.

There are various types of disabilities that people have and it is important not to overlook each of these at the design stage, a building design can cater for one person's disability and completely overlook another.

A disability can be defined as "the restriction or lack of ability to perform activities in a manner which may be considered normal for a human being" (Shields & Dunlop 1996)

A survey produced by Shields (1996) demonstrates how actions that may be required in an emergency evacuation are practised with difficulty, from the data shown in table 1.0 below, it can be seen that 4.7% of the total adult population of Northern Ireland (who are out and about) experience difficulty when using stairs, it also demonstrates how minor obstructions such as thresholds cause difficulties for people.


Go out unassisted



Degree of Difficulty

Degree of Difficulty

Degree of Difficulty










1. Go up and down stairs










2. Climb outside stairs










3. Cross door saddles










4. Go through doors










5. Turn on taps










6. Turn door knobs










Table 1.0 Percentage of total mobile population (Northern Ireland) who experience difficulty in various activities Source (Shields & Dunlop 1996)

Table 1.0 shows the extent of difficulty that disabled people have with buildings, noting just a few items, these demonstrate simple tasks that are taken for granted when designing a building, and these tasks can be used as a basis for tasks that would be required when attempting to evacuate a building.

I feel it is important to mention that when we consider a person with a disability, it is often thought that they have just one individual disability. This, however is not the case, Shields data tells us that over 36% of the disabled population have single a disability and a further 25% have two disabilities. (Shields & Dunlop 1996) Considering these findings, it is easier to see how the task of existing a building is a problem, rather than the individual disability itself.

Shields' looked at each of the problems disabled people encounter when evacuating a building by carrying out experiments.

Firstly considering 'Locomotion', his experiment required participants to move along a 50m route, containing at least one door and at least one 90° turn. The results produced allow us to identify the average amount of time it took for the participants to evacuate; we can also gather the difficulties that they found on exiting the building.

Subject Group

Mean (m/s)

Median (m/s)

With Locomotion disability:







Assisted (Excluding wheelchair users)



Without locomotion disability



Table 1.1 Travel speed (m/s) on horizontal by presence/absence of locomotion disability and level of assistance. Source (Shields & Dunlop 1996)

Table 1.1 shows us that, as expected, the mean speed for people without a locomotion disability is much higher than those with.

The study provides further results about people with locomotion disabilities, when following the route:

Many people used the full width of the route and did not necessarily follow he shortest path

Some people preferred to be in close proximity of a wall

17% of people used handrails when they were available

Some participants needed to rest during the route

Wheelchair users found it difficult to easily move along newly carpeted areas

Shield's also considers stairs, from his research, Shields' explains that many individuals simply could not use the stairs and others only when there were two handrails available, where there was only one handrail, people had great difficulty.

The observations that were accumulated from the experiment are as follows:

The majority of people negotiated one step at a time

Most people had more confidence going up instead of down stairs

Participants were very careful when placing their foot on the tread

Above 90% of unassisted subjects chose to use the handrail

Most participants chose the inside position on the stairs

Where disabled people had not power in one arm, they were forced to use the handrail closest to their 'good' arm.

The following item that was considered was Dexterity/Strength, this, allowed researchers to produce findings that demonstrated the difficulties disabled people had when using a lever/knob handle.

The findings are shown in the table below.

Subject Group



Maximum force applied using lever (N):

With dexterity disability



Without dexterity disability



Maximum force applied using lever (N):

With dexterity disability



Without dexterity disability



Table 1.2 Maximum force/torque applied using a lever/knob type handle by presence/absence of dexterity disability Source (Shields & Dunlop 1996)

This table clearly shows that the mean force without a dexterity disability is greater whether using a lever or knob handle.

Taking this a stage further, the results proved by Shields also show the difficulties many disabled people encountered when opening and passing through doors.

Shields identifies that where disabled people failed to open doors was down to strength, when they managed to open the door, they struggled to apply enough continuous force to pass through while keeping the door open. The findings show that 5 out of 14 who failed to open the door were manual wheelchair users, this was mainly down to lack of strength and technique. (Shields & Dunlop 1996)

Technique becomes a very apparent downfall for the wheelchair users when attempting to manoeuvre their wheelchair while simultaneously hold it open and passing through. This simple everyday activity for able bodied people is huge task to overcome for disabled people.


These findings provide us with an understanding on how difficult the tasks demonstrated and experimented in the tables above really are for disabled people. It proves that even the simplest task of opening a door can become a 'problem' within buildings, this difficulty can in turn effect the time of escape and over procedure of the evacuation. Designers need to take into consideration the difficulties that disabled people are encountering to firstly make buildings more accessible and then also incorporate the same principles into the safe evacuation of a building.

The problem with buildings

In structural terms, where physical features, for example, a feature from the design or construction of a building, the approach or access to premises results in making it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled persons to access, building managers will need to make reasonable adjustments to their premises as follows:

• remove the feature

• alter the feature so that it no longer makes access impossible or unreasonably difficult

• provide a reasonable means of avoiding the feature or, in the case of service providers, provide a reasonable alternative method of making the service in question available to disabled persons


An immediate issue with many buildings is the amount of floors that the building may have, although, adding additional floors increase the amount of usable area and rentable space, adding multiple floors also increases the distance from the exit, therefore, complicating the escape route for disabled people.

With this in mind, an increase in size, ultimately increases the amount of escape routes and provides more options. Yet, it needs to be considered whether these routes are as accessible as entrance doors. As earlier discussed, buildings are being adjusted to allow safe access into the building, this means that the entrance is made more accessible, incorporating ramps, hand rails etc, are the escape routes also incorporating details that will allow safe and easy escape from a building?

Fig 1: Doors swing in direction of exit path; Emergency Lighting; 44 inches (1120mm) stair width; Comfortable, consistent tread and riser proportions; Rail end turns in; Landing as wide as stair. Source: (Compact Dynamics 2010)

Multiple floors means, more stairs, it is argued by Shields (1993) that the width of the escape route needs to be enough to be able to accommodate an evacuation of a wheelchair bound person, this is without causing problems to other escapees.


Doors are being used in buildings to assist with the control of fire spread, dividing corridors up and providing a barrier where required. However, they can also be hindrance to disabled people, the width of doors, for instance, needs to be suitable to allow a wheelchair user to easily pass through, this usually means that the door needs to have a clear width of 800mm (Kent 2007). The problem does not end with the width of doors, where visually impaired people are using the building, it is often difficult for them to locate the door, considering that this is problem in normal circumstances, it is then highly increased when in a situation where a visually impaired person is in need of locating the door during a fire. Therefore doors need to contrast with walls in order to allow them to stand out.

As discussed earlier, Shields (1996) findings show us that wheelchair users in particular have great difficulty with the task of opening a door and passing through while holding it open at the same time, this exhibits problems with the doors opening mechanism and how it can be improved to aid disabled people in using various doors.

BS5588: Part 8 explains that doors must have a level threshold, "It is essential that all occupants are able to leave quickly any area in which they may be in danger from fire. Escape routes should be free from any feature that might impede movement, such as unsuitable door ironmongery or raised thresholds or steps between changes of level within a storey." (BSI, 2004). Existing buildings struggle with this statement; these buildings have often been adapted and extended to introduce more floor space. In order to achieve maximum space, the introduction to a step in floor level may have been required and therefore the consideration of the escape of disabled people was ignored. Overcoming this can include the introduction of a ramp; it needs to be made sure that a route without obstruction is introduced, so whether a completely separate route is provided rather than attempting to correct the original.

A ramp creates a route where may not have been acceptable, but it is still considered that just a ramp may not be appropriate and as such, the ramp needs to be full equipment with acceptable handrails.


In order to comply with Part M of the Building Regulations, buildings with multiple storeys are increasingly being designed with the incorporating of a lift, however in the instances of a fire a lift can become unusable and it is advised that the lift is not used in the event of a fire (BSI, 2004). It is therefore important to consider the use of a lift during an evacuation due to fire, is the lift suitable? Will more than 1 disabled person require using it in this event? Identifying these questions mean that a lift may not be the answer, BS5588:Part 8, however, introduces the concept of refuges.

It must be mentioned that, as much as BS588: part 8 illustrates the ways in providing emergency egress for occupants of a building, the method that is set out may not be the optimum solution.


Refuges are areas that provide disabled persons with an area that is separated from the fire and provide adequate fire protection through improved performance wall and floor construction. These areas provide temporary safe area for the disabled persons to wait for assistance; it must be considered that the area requires a safe route of exit. (Gibson 1996).

Fig. 2: Components of a vestibule area of refuge: 2-way communication and instructions; illuminated sign; exit stairway; exit doors. (Compact Dynamics 2010)

The refuge area is a waiting area for the disabled person to wait for the lift that would be controlled by the evacuation manager; they will have been suitably trained in this process. The refuge area may be to meet the designated people who have been allocated to instruct the disabled persons or possible to wait for assistance where they would be carried down the stairs, this may be after the main evacuation.

Refuges should always be equipped with a method of two way communication that links to the control area. It may also be necessary to include CCTV, this however, would only be required on larger and more complicated buildings.

Evacuating the building

As discussed, buildings are vulnerable to impede the escape of disabled people, and, as such, should be adjusted to ensure that everything is reasonably practicable. This is down to the employer or service provided and is part of there 'duty of care' (Box 2005).

However, adjusting the building may not be enough; therefore an evacuation management plan would be required. It is a responsibility for the employer or service provided to identify the disabled people in the building and discuss their needs. (Kent 2007)

The evacuation procedure details the characteristics of the building, this assists with the assessment of the equipment required to help disabled people safely evacuate the building. The evacuation plan will produce information on the training members of staff will require in order to effectively assist, in the event of a fire, including the actions to proceed when the alarm goes off. It will also identify what to do when it is not possible to safely evacuate a disabled person and also the communication required when confined to a refuge area.

This brings us onto the requirement of a 'PEEP', this is a Personal emergency egress plan. It is an individual plan that explains how that person will be made aware that they are required to evacuate the building and thus how they will escape safely. A PEEP is directly associated with the disabled person and the building they are in.

A PEEP effectively works on the basis that the disabled person constantly uses the building, i.e. a member of staff. They are created by consulting with the disabled person and taking into account every feature within the building (UoL 2007). A lot of buildings, however, have a high content of members of the public entering them, a requirement to sit each disabled person down and go through their requirements and escape procedure just would not be feasible, so, a range of standard PEEPS would be required to be produced and be available on requested (Kent 2007).

See Annex A for an example of a PEEP Form.

A few items that should be detailed with in the PEEP are as follows:

The safe escape route they are expected to use

Position of Emergency Aids such as Evac-Chairs that the person may require. Note that training and maintenance for such aids is required

Refuge area location and procedure of evacuation from this area

These methods of providing an emergency escape plan, all fall to pieces if a key principle is not implemented, and this is staff training. Staff must be given knowledge on the procedures set in place and be aware of how to implement them in the event of an evacuation (Peace 1999).

Final Conclusion

Buildings struggle to cater for disabled people at the initial stage of access; we are, partly due to legislation, adopting older buildings to allow easier access for disabled people. Once in the building, as Shields (1996) experiments demonstrate, simple tasks such as opening and passing through doors require huge amounts of effort to execute and even then, disabled people sometimes fail to carry out these tasks. The evacuation of a building puts disabled people in a very vulnerable position, requiring them to carry out tasks that we take for granted and make their way to safety without problem. This, however, is not the case and as Shields (1996) demonstrates in his results, even when assisted, disabled people still have difficulty.

It is not such an easy task to identify what difficulties disabled people may have with a building, firstly because, with each disability, there is a task that they as an individual have a difficulty with. Disabilities impede a person's ability in different ways, i.e. hearing, travelling, and seeing. Only when a designer is aware of all the disabilities that a person may have can he truly look at the areas of a building that may cause problems. From this we can identify each element, whether it is moving along a corridor, walking down stairs, hearing an alarm - identifying these items means we can see what we currently have in place and develop that into a design that will not cause problems for disabled people during an evacuation.

Many aspects of buildings are being put together, where the evacuation of disabled people is in the control of others, the disabled persons safety it moved into a 'refuge' or 'evac-chair' to help overcome the problem and from this other people can take over and ensure the safe exit of the disabled person.

A PEEP is a step forward; it puts the disabled person in control of how they will escape in the event of a fire and consults them on their difficulties.

All these methods appear to work and from the research I have undertaken have been put into practice, but the concern we are left with is whether the building should be designed around the safe escape of disabled people. Clearly from Shields (1999) research, various elements of a building should be improved, but how far should do we go until the concept of a building design is compromised by allowing disabled people to escape unassisted.