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BRE Global discusses Means of Escape for Disabled Persons

BRE Global Discusses Means of Escape for Disabled Persons

Current Legislation

The introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) places a duty on building owners and operators to make reasonable adjustments to facilitate access for disabled persons. The duty applies to anyone providing goods, facilities or services to the public for free or not. The Act does not specify what must be considered when determining what is reasonable, although factors such as financial cost, practicality, and the effectiveness of the adjustment are suggested.

In providing access for disabled persons, both designers of new buildings, and owners and operators of existing buildings, must also ensure means of providing safe egress in the event of fire. In new buildings the requirement for safe egress is made by the Building Regulations (Requirement B1). In existing buildings there is a duty under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 for the responsible person (typically an employer, owner, or person who has control over the premises) to safeguard the safety of relevant persons including providing safe egress.

It is important to note that disability does not just include those who are mobility impaired but also includes visual, hearing, behavioural and intellectual impairments. In some buildings such as care homes and hospitals it may be clear which forms of disability will be predominantly encountered. In other occupancies such as education or public service premises, it may be less clear who and how many occupants will potentially use the building.

Common Approaches

There are a number of approaches which may be used to help facilitate safe egress for disabled persons. Equipment to help assist mobility impaired occupants move down stairs, such as evacuation chairs, are available. Simple cost effective design alterations such as colour coding escape stairwells can help those with cognitive disabilities recognise evacuation routes. For mobility impairments, the Building Regulation design guidance (Approved Document B) advises that refuge areas with communication points are provided, typically within protected spaces such as stairwells. Evacuation lifts which are provided with additional protective measures can also be used to facilitate disabled egress. It may be impractical or too expensive to design and manage a building to account for the entire range of disabilities which may be encountered. In such cases occupants should be encouraged to alert management of any impairments which may affect their ability to safely escape so that a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) may be provided.

Recently the reduction in funding for education providers has led many schools and colleges to refurbish existing building stock instead of constructing new buildings. Educational buildings may date back to Victorian times or earlier, before the development of modern fire safety design guidance. More recent building stock, such as the tower blocks characteristic of the 1960s and 1970s, were also built to design guidance which differs from today.

Building Regulations are not retrospective, although where it is proposed that a building undergo a material alteration, either through refurbishment or change of use, it may be required to apply for approval by the approving authority. Irrespective of this, it remains that under the Fire Safety Order the responsible person must still ensure safe egress is provided once the building is occupied.


BRE Global provides all aspects of Fire Safety support including, computational fire modelling, fire strategies, fire risk assessment and structural fire engineering. Recently BRE Global has provided support for an educational establishment with a large existing property portfolio. Consider the scenario of an existing tall building used for teaching. This building is over 18m tall, and features two separated fire protected cores which each contain a stair and a lift. Whilst disabled access can be provided by the existing lifts, the lifts are not typically evacuation lifts and therefore can not be relied upon to facilitate safe egress in the event of fire. An evacuation chair approach via the stairwells is not practical for the management as it would place a high reliance on the physical ability of staff in order to assist.

A standard code compliant solution would advise the provision of an evacuation lift in each core with an associated lobby refuge area.

It may be cost prohibitive for a new evacuation lift and shaft to be provided within the building. Also the provision of lobby refuges areas within the existing lobbies will restrict the numbers of persons who can be accommodated within them. One of the particular challenges to educational premises as well as other public access buildings is predicting the numbers of mobility impaired people who must be considered. With new intakes of students each year, the numbers of disabled persons in an educational building can vary. The solution for the building must be flexible and accommodate the variable number of disabled occupants who may be enrolled every year.

A risk assessment for the existing lift can be undertaken considering the guidance CLG guide BD2466 [Guidance on the emergency use of lifts or escalators for evacuation and fire and rescue service operations]. The assessment establishes the existing lift provisions and importantly identifies the areas which need to be upgraded to enable its use as an evacuation lift. With the upgrades, it is demonstrated that the requirements stated in BS9999:2008 Clause 46.9 for evacuation lifts can be met.

The existing fire fighting lift in one core can be used to evacuate disabled occupants (in line with the design guidance of BS9999:2008). To avoid conflict with fire-fighting operations, the fire-fighting lift should be used only to evacuate those on the fire affected floor. Mobility impaired occupants on other compartment floors will have the option to use the lift in the alternate core.

One possible solution is based on the approach of phased horizontal evacuation, a strategy commonly adopted in many healthcare buildings. A line of fire compartmentation is used to separate the two stairs and lift cores and divide each floor into two fire compartment areas. In the event of an emergency, mobility impaired occupants can move horizontally towards the unaffected fire compartment where, out of immediate danger, they can await temporarily in relative safety for assistance by staff.

The use of lifts as part of the evacuation strategy benefits the evacuation strategy for able bodied people in the building. By allowing the use of lifts for evacuation of mobility impaired persons, the flow of people down the stair will be unimpeded by those who are being assisted in their escape. The solution also frees the building owner from controlling the numbers of mobility impaired occupants to the capacity of a small stair lobby refuge on each floor.


Consideration of means of escape for disabled occupants continues to present challenges particularly in existing buildings which may have not been designed to modern Building Regulation guidance. Reasonable adjustments are expected to facilitate access under the DDA and refurbishment can present an opportunity to make these. The adoption of alternate fire safety strategies for existing buildings can provide flexible and workable solutions for building owners and managers. Successful alterations in the design of the building can avoid unnecessary reliance on management and therefore reduce associated potential failure modes.


To find out more about evacuation modelling, fire engineering and fire risk assessments please visit the website at: www.bre.co.uk/fire

For more information – Carl Sherwood, email sherwoodc@bre.co.uk

Carl Sherwood is a member of BRE Global’s Fire Safety team