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Identify Gaps in ADA Safety

Worker receiving emergency communications

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

■ 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 is senior editor of BUILDINGS.

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