Fully inclusive fire safety

Fully inclusive fire safety

One of the greatest challenges for the fire engineer is to ensure a well-rounded fire strategy is developed and implemented by the design team that fully considers all potential users and occupants of a building. Protecting vulnerable members within our society, including persons with reduced mobility and/or disability, the young and elderly, those receiving care and sleeping risks needs careful consideration writes Peter Stephenson, Business Development Manager, Warringtonfire, when assessing the optimum evacuation and fire protection strategy.

The term ‘disabled or disability’ can often be misunderstood and it is important to remember that it is often used in the context of a legal term rather than a medical one. As an example, because it has a legal definition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of disability is different from how disability is defined under some other laws,  such as for Social Security Disability related benefits.

The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. As is now common around the globe, the ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. 

The purpose of the law is to make sure that people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as
everyone else. 

In the USA, there are over 43 million people with a disability and this figure is constantly changing as at any point in time anyone could have a temporary or permanent disability. In the UK there are over 11 million people with a limiting long term illness, impairment or disability with the most commonly-reported impairments are those that affect mobility, lifting or carrying. Statistically the prevalence of disability rises with age. Around 6% of children are disabled, compared to 16% of working age adults and 45% of adults over the age of 65. 

From a design and strategy perspective, codes can be applied to give the minimum safety requirements but, in reality, there needs to be a robust fire safety management plan that provides key guidance and action plans to ensure the safe evacuation of persons needing assistance. Once the evacuation strategy has been developed, identifying key personnel to manage an evacuation and in particular, to assist persons needing assistance to evacuate becomes paramount.

NFPA’s Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities  provides information on the five general categories of disabilities (mobility, visual, hearing, speech, and cognitive) and the four elements of evacuation information that occupants need: notification, way finding, use of the way, and assistance. It also includes a checklist  that building services managers and people with disabilities can use to design a personalised evacuation plan, as well as government resources and text based on the relevant code requirements and ADA criteria. 

Providing for disabled and hard-of-hearing building occupants should be high on the fire safety agenda.

Disabled access

The USA and the UK set out to legally protect people from discrimination in the workplace and wider society. Facilities managers can often be responsible for undertaking a suitable and sufficient fire risk assessment and for the provision of an emergency evacuation plan for all people likely to be in the premises and instructions for how the plan will be implemented. An understanding and knowledge of the occupant’s disabilities and how that can affect them is vital.

Across the Middle East, the importance of protecting special needs groups features prominently within fire codes. The UAE Fire & Life Safety Code does not mandate an area of refuge. However, for super high rise buildings (having height more than 90 m), or for any large complex building, if the overall fire strategy demands an area of refuge as part of the means of egress an area of refuge for disabled occupants shall be required in compliance with the code. The purpose of the area of refuge is to provide a temporary point of safety to allow delayed egress travel from any level in the building and serve disabled occupants to have temporary refuge. 

The UAE Code also identifies building owner’s responsibility to develop customised, facility specific emergency evacuation procedures and emergency action plans with the assistance of a Civil Defence approved House of Expertise. Such emergency action plans shall take into consideration the personnel to be assigned for particular tasks, for particular actions to be taken, particular method of evacuation to be followed, decision to use elevators, coordination with Civil Defence personnel, assistance to be offered to elderly and disabled people etc. during emergencies. 

Chapter 11 of the Saudi Building Code 201 provides guidance on accessibility requirements and further detail on the provision of refuge areas etc. as detailed in Saudi Fire Code SBC 801.

Evacuation strategy 

Effective  communication with disabled people about the evacuation plan is vital to its success. Where staff or regular visitors have disabilities, it is prudent for the building manager to tailor an evacuation plan to their individual needs – a  Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP).

This does not only apply to permanent disabilities; temporary injuries such as sprained ankles and mobility difficulties associated with pregnancy must also  be addressed.

As mentioned if a building hosts occupants with physical disabilities, the evacuation procedure should consider them. Keeping means of escape routes clear at all times is an all-important part of fire safety and becomes even more vital when considering the space required to manoeuvre a wheelchair.

If wheelchair users are located above the ground floor, adequate systems and facilities such as ramps or carry-down procedures should be installed to permit their safe  evacuation from the building without using lifts.

Passive versus active systems

The fire strategy will identify the required fire protection systems for both active and passive systems. The benefits of sprinkler protection and similar active systems are well documented. A robust fire strategy should also consider minimising the impact and potential for the spread of fire and smoke. Fire doors and passive fire protection systems form one of a building’s  most important fire safety features and sadly, the most commonly abused. Constant monitoring of this issue and offering a solution could help keep building occupiers safe in the event of a fire, particularly where the evacuation strategy has a reliance on refuge areas.

Fire doors are most often wedged open to aid the free flow of movement within a building and to facilitate cleaning. To allow free movement in the building the fire strategy should identify alternative solutions linked into the fire alarm system that can automatically close a fire door fitted with an approved hold-open device. 

It is important that facilities managers and all persons with responsibility in a building ensure that adequate adjustments have been made to accommodate disabilities and that fire safety has been made part of everyday life.

High-rise challenges

International fire codes and standards have developed to provide best practice advice to design teams to ensure the safety of all building users, including operational firefighters responding to emergency calls and special needs groups. It is important for design teams to engage with Civil Defence or local fire departments to fully understand their operational response procedures to high-rise buildings, as these can vary dependent on local/regional conditions. This insight will give an appreciation of the practical challenges they encounter and assist in the development of a robust fire strategy.

Identifying the key challenges in fire safety design and escape planning in tall and super-tall towers requires a careful balance of architectural vision with fire safety provisions in the high-rise building design. It is important for the design team to assess the unique considerations for fire safety in tall buildings including:

  • Potential for flame spread both internally and externally
  • Challenges in fire suppression
  • Extended exposure to smoke and heat
  • Potential for thermal weakening of the building structure

From a design perspective, the requirements for the components of egress must be fully considered by the project team. A full analysis of the interaction between the following components must be undertaken:

  • Horizontal components of escape
  • Vertical components
  • Areas of relative safety
  • Place of ultimate safety

In addition, the building design should fully address the following requirements:

  • Structural fire protection
  • Fire suppression – reliability & robustness
  • Smoke control
  • Compartmentation
  • Evacuation strategies
  • Fire service access and facilities
  • Fire safety management & evacuation planning

As highlighted above, a key challenge with tall structures is the time required to evacuate the building. With some high-rise structures having well over 100 mixed-use floors, with thousands of occupants, the evacuation can be over a protracted period if all building occupants need to leave the building. Human behaviour during an alarm condition is a key factor in the building design and on-going management. A building with a history of unwanted false alarms can lead to a lack of confidence in the fire systems from the building occupants who may be reluctant to respond to what is perceived to be another false alarm. To overcome this, it is important to have a well-designed, maintained and managed fire alarm system incorporating the facility for directed voice messages to guide and direct the building occupants during an incident. 

The evacuation process must be managed in stages or phased approach adopted so staircases and emergency exits can safely accommodate the design occupant load and special needs groups. Typically, the areas closest to a fire need to be evacuated first, in what can be a rapidly evolving situation. The floors above and below the fire come next and, at the same time, the floors at the bottom and top of the building (if the fire is in the middle floors), will be evacuated. Other floors will be alerted and this will form part of the building fire systems cause and effect.

Due to the complex nature of many multi-occupancy high-rise buildings, there is the potential for multiple signals occurring simultaneously in adjacent areas (vertically or horizontally) and in open atria and common areas that span many building compartments. The use of live voice notifications from Civil Defence, indicating when users should prepare to evacuate should be a key design consideration.

Where voice alarms are provided, the fire system should ensure that any messages are clear and understandable, remain synchronised and properly indicate the evacuation sequence. Various national and international standards cover this. 

The failure to have a robust fire strategy in place and to manage safety adequately all too often results in death or injury and loss of business confidence; which can have a significant impact on the physical and economic wellbeing of society. A serious fire in a workplace associated with inadequate management of fire safety can begin a spiral of events that may result in total business failure.

Regardless of the type of organisation, its activities and the specific management issues that it faces, clear unequivocal policies relating to fire safety, including the safety of special needs groups, are needed in order to establish effective organisational control. A policy is the basis of an organisation’s management strategy; providing direction, enabling it to organise, plan, set targets and implement its organisational objectives.