Imagine that Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, Stevie Wonder, and Beethoven are all employees of your company. A fire alarm sounds and people need to evacuate, but how will these individuals receive emergency information and navigate your building to safety?
People with disabilities face a number of complications during a crisis. Those with visual and hearing difficulties may not be able to adequately receive emergency alerts. Individuals with mobility issues may require additional assistance to move out of harm’s way. Anyone with a speech limitation may need alternative ways to communicate, and those with cognitive impairments can benefit from simplified instructions. Each of these at-risk occupants is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
While ADA is a broad piece of civil rights legislation, its scope includes accessibility for any building open to the public. Most owners are aware it’s their responsibility to remove any structural obstacles that would impede someone from entering and navigating their building. But you’re also legally obligated to eliminate any barriers that could undermine a person’s safety during an emergency.
“The fact of the matter is that people with disabilities have significantly more difficulty accessing emergency information and safely traversing the built environment,” says Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist for NFPA. “Consider that one-fifth of the population has disabilities that qualify under ADA. Once you factor in children under 12 and seniors over 65, almost half of the population has a very real likelihood of needing assistance in an emergency. We need to empower these individuals with the right tools to ensure their safety.”
To comply with ADA and other accessibility standards, focus on provisions that improve notification, wayfinding, and navigation.
5 Common Oversights that Undermine Safety
Beyond design and construction, ADA considerations can fall to the back burner when it comes to operations. Unless you have an occupant with a disability, providing accommodations may not seem pressing. But this ignores the reality that an emergency can occur without a moment’s notice and a portion of your occupants may not have the protection they need.
The first step is to conduct a risk assessment. Just because you’ve received a clean bill of health from a building inspection doesn’t mean that you’re fully in compliance with ADA, says attorney Brian Muse, a partner at the law firm LeClairRyan. As there are a number of accessibility and life safety codes, ask a professional to help you evaluate your facility so nothing is overlooked.
“Go beyond a basic safety audit and specifically look for code compliance once a year,” recommends Chuck Wilson, executive director for the National Systems Contractors Association. “Work with a fire or life safety consultant, your local AHJ, or the integrator who conducts your system testing.”
Otherwise, ask HR to notify you when a new hire needs accommodations, suggests Muse. A major build-out, renovation, or change in your building population should also prompt a second look.
Despite the breadth of accessibility considerations, buildings usually fall short in a handful of areas. Review these five factors to see if your property might have a critical gap.
1) Limiting Mass Notification
You may test your fire alarms routinely, but how will a person who is deaf know there’s an emergency? What happens if you use your alarms for other crises, such as chemical spills, an active shooter, or a storm warning? Those with hearing impairments are at a disadvantage if they can’t distinguish what type of emergency is at hand or receive specific instructions on how to respond. The same could be said if you only use written messages – you may not be reaching those with vision loss.
“You don’t want to rely on a single means of communication,” says Dick Bauer, vice president of sales of NOTIFIER, a manufacturer of mass notification solutions. “You need multiple avenues to catch people’s attention.”
If your building is equipped with mass notification, evaluate the placement of devices. Many companies cover public spaces such as corridors and lobbies but neglect employee areas, notes Wilson. These are zones where audible and visual alarms could significantly expand your reach.
2) Overlooking Areas of Refuge
Do you have a tornado shelter, an assembly point in the parking lot, or rooms that convert to lockdown mode? You can direct people with impairments to these meeting spots, but what happens once they reach the area of refuge and need to wait until a situation is resolved? Owners should evaluate locations where people congregate in an emergency, says Bauer.
These include any areas that double as a safety zone, such as a gymnasium, cafeteria, auditorium, or assembly hall. These sites should have accommodations that address mobility and communication assistance, Wilson emphasizes.
3) Blocking the Path of Egress
Whether occupants need to shelter in place or evacuate the building, it’s imperative their path of egress is free of obstructions. Consider how disorienting an emergency can be – you don’t want the built environment adding to the chaos. Tactical and visual signage, properly marked exits, uncluttered corridors, and easy-to-open doors will ensure people can move without hindrance.
“Door clearances are a big one,” adds Fraser. “You have to have 18 inches between the edge of the door on the latch side and any wall or nearby objects. That way, a wheelchair can approach on the pull side and open the door freely.”
“If your building has automatic doors or push buttons, look at how they respond during lockdown mode. The ideal sequence should call for the sensors or push buttons to deactivate from the outside so an intruder can’t use them but remain in operation on the inside so the path of egress isn’t blocked,” notes Wilson.
4) Forgetting Evacuation Plans and Drills
Has it been over a calendar year since you ran a drill or updated your emergency plan? It’s critical you have current documentation for your life safety protocol, particularly as these procedures should outline provisions for individuals who require assistance, says Muse. For a checklist of accommodations, see sidebar on page 37.
While ADA doesn’t legally cover transitory disabilities, that doesn’t mean owners are off the hook from ensuring the safety of an occupant who’s temporarily impaired, says Wilson. Think about the student on crutches, the employee recovering from back surgery, or a worker who’s injured his or her hand. Even medical conditions such as asthma, pregnancy, and obesity can create mobility limitations that could warrant additional assistance. What about occupants who become impaired as a result of an emergency? What happens if someone’s ability to move or communicate becomes momentarily compromised?
Running drills and tabletop exercises is the only way to identify these life safety gaps before they put someone at risk. Also remember that exercises should cover a range of emergencies beyond fire, such as storm, earthquake, flood, biochemical, and active shooter.
5) Failing to Put Someone in Charge
If life safety is a direct responsibility of your department, make sure one of your team members is assigned to keep tabs on it. ADA isn’t a checklist that can be completed and then forgotten about, argues Muse – it’s something you should build into your facility’s operational practices.
“It’s incumbent upon each company to designate a safety officer who has ADA compliance in his or her scope of duties,” Wilson stresses.
Be careful of lease situations, adds Muse. While building owners have certain obligations, a tenant may make internal modifications that don’t satisfy ADA. Make sure the lease is clear who is ultimately responsible in those situations.
Solutions to Improve Emergency Response
One of the difficulties with ADA compliance is the lack of specifics in the law. Because it’s not a building code, there’s nothing in the mandate that will tell you which accommodations you are required to make.
For guidance on devices and structural modifications, you can turn to any number of codes: NFPA, International Building Code, ANSI A117.1 – Standard for Accessible and Usable Buildings and Facilities, and OSHA regulations for means of egress and emergency protocols. Multifamily property managers should review HUD’s Fair Housing Act Accessibility Guidelines and those in federal facilities need to comply with the Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards (UFAS). It’s worth checking into language specified in your local and state regulations as well.
“Considering that ADA calls for measures that are readily achievable, perfection is not the goal. The worst thing owners can do is say that because they can’t do a certain retrofit, they’re not going to do anything at all,” Muse stresses. “If there are 10 things that could improve your facility’s life safety but you only have the budget for three, start there.”
One system to focus on is your mass notification. Rather than a standard horn, a combination of visual and audible devices will ensure anyone with a sensory impairment has the opportunity to receive emergency alerts.
“We recommend a multilayered mass notification system with visible and colored strobe lights that are paired with voice messages,” Bauer says. “The alerts can be preprogrammed or broadcast live to differentiate between emergencies. For another way to reach those with hearing difficulties, look into software packages or services that provide global calling, mass texting, and email alerts.”
If it’s not feasible to use intelligible audio throughout your building, you can designate a central location that people should meet at to receive more instructions. These spots are often equipped with electronic displays in addition to voice communications, says Wilson.
Digital and tactile signage with raised letters is another overlooked area, Bauer adds. These types of signs can help those with sight difficulties and be placed in locations where voice communications aren’t available.
“Another trend I’m seeing is that people are using message boards and digital signage to provide visual emergency instructions, particularly in areas of refuge,” says Wilson.
Beyond a standard illuminated EXIT sign, consider adding models with compact lights that can flash for additional wayfinding. Even low levels of smoke can make an exit hard to see, much less for those with vision impairments. Take it a step further and use wayfinding with Braille and raised lettering. If signs have a tactile component, however, they need to be placed at a height that is easily reached and without obstructions. You can even specify models that include audible alarms or voice notification.
“It’s also important to consider the color of your signage. Depending on the color combination, someone who is colorblind may be unable to see the lettering,” notes Muse. “It doesn’t mean that you get rid of all of your red signs, for example, but maybe a secondary sign is warranted as a precaution.”
Evacuation planning for wheelchair users is paramount if your building has stairs. It may be prudent to invest in a stair descent device, which is a motorized or hand-carried chair. Fraser recommends products that meet standards for ISO and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). Models should also come with safety features such as brakes so the chair will stop if the operator loses control.
If your facility doesn’t have this type of device, you need to have another contingency plan to evacuate a wheelchair user. Schedule practice runs so everyone involved knows how to execute the maneuver without complications.
Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities
NFPA recommends that you identify all individuals who need accommodations in the event of an emergency. By working proactively with your occupants, you can ensure provisions are in place in advance of a crisis rather than as an afterthought. For the full checklist, visit nfpa.org/safety-information.
■ Are there emergency notification devices appropriate for this person? Does this person know the location of each emergency notification device/system and understand its meaning and function?
■ Is there a way for a person with a hearing or speech impairment to report an emergency?
■ Where is the established outside meeting place?
■ Is the usable circulation path (a continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building to a public way) clearly marked to show the route to leave the building or to relocate to some other space in an emergency?
■ Do doors used to connect any room to a circulation path have proper maneuvering clearances?
■ Do all interior doors, other than fire doors, readily open from the inside without keys, tools, or special knowledge and require less than 5 pounds of force to unlatch and set the door in motion?
■ Is each exit marked with a clearly visible sign reading EXIT in all forms (visual, tactile, Braille)? Is every doorway or passage that might be mistaken for an exit marked NOT AN EXIT in all forms?
■ Are signs posted and arranged along circulation paths to adequately show how to get to the nearest exit?
■ Do brightly lit signs, displays, or objects in or near the line of vision not obstruct or distract attention from exit signs, particularly for people with low vision?
■ Are exit signs and doors kept free of items that obscure their visibility or a person’s ability to find and feel them?
■ Are usable circulation paths at least 32 inches wide for any segment less than 24 inches in length and 36 inches for all segments 24 inches or longer?
■ Can the person evacuate himself or herself with a device or aid or is assistance required? Has the person discussed with emergency management personnel his or her preferences with regard to evacuation and handling of any service animals?
“You need to hold training for wheelchair evacuation in stairwells,” stresses Fraser. “It takes three people to carry a wheelchair down stairs – two on the sides and one in back. All four people are at risk from the time they lift the chair to when they set it down. Only use this option for extreme emergencies.”
Evacuation sleds are another option and can be used for people who are injured as well. It may also be wise to stash folding wheelchairs at the bottom of stairwells so that once evacuation is complete, an individual has immediate mobility again.
Provisions for cognitive disabilities should also be a consideration. These occupants may be able to hear and see emergency messages, but they may not be able to process them fully, Fraser notes. Flashing lights and loud noises may also be disorienting and prevent them from reacting quickly. NFPA’s Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities recommends several strategies to overcome communication hurdles, such as “providing a picture book of drill procedures or color coding fire doors and exit ways.” You can also create a buddy system, which works well for any disability, and task job coaches or school aides to practice evacuation drills.
Given the confusion and fear an emergency can create, you have to rely on your building to effectively coordinate the life safety of each and every occupant. Stay one step ahead of ADA compliance and proactively implement provisions that will help at-risk groups.
“Our mindset needs to change about the built environment and ADA,” says Fraser. “It’s not about two groups of people, those with impairments and those without – this is about all of your occupants. If a life safety accommodation works for people with disabilities, it will work for everyone.”
Jennie Morton firstname.lastname@example.org is senior editor of BUILDINGS.