Prepared For Safety

March 26, 2003
Evacuation Is the Cornerstone of Emergency Management
The United States has a large disabled population. The U.S. Census Bureau reports 54 million Americans, about one-fifth of the U.S. population, have a disability of some kind.A National Organization on Disability (NOD)/Harris Poll survey commissioned in November 2001 discovered that 50 percent of people with disabilities said that no plans had been made to safely evacuate their workplaces. The survey also found that people with disabilities were far more anxious about their personal safety.Don’t create a separate accessible egress plan. Instead, incorporate provisions into your general emergency management plan, says Elizabeth Davis, director of the Emergency Preparedness Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based NOD.Davis, an emergency management and special needs consultant who works out of an office in New York City, has extensive experience in both disability policy and emergency management work. She has seen both good and bad emergency plans that address the needs of the disabled in action.“The disability community itself is not a homogenous group,” she notes. “It’s one of the pitfalls. Organizations and entities recognize they want to do the right thing and put into place emergency plans that address people with disabilities. But, they lump all needs into one plan or put only a few elements into place and feel they have met everyone’s unique disaster needs.”It’s not that easy, experts say. Just ask the folks at The Access Board, a Washington, D.C.-based federal agency devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities. The Board develops and maintains accessibility requirements for the built environment, transit vehicles, telecommunications equipment, and for electronic and information technology under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); provides technical assistance and training on these guidelines and standards; and enforces accessibility standards for federally funded facilities.Disability Agency Creates Own PlanIn its 10th floor offices, two blocks from the White House, The Access Board’s offices house 28 full-time employees. Six of those employees use wheelchairs. Four individuals are blind or visually impaired. Two employees use service animals.Additionally, the agency’s governing board meets at the offices every other month. A number of those board members use wheelchairs. As an advocacy agency for the disabled, The Access Board also has many disabled visitors passing through its doors each week.“Evacuation planning is a critical component of life safety, including [evacuation] for persons with disabilities,” says Dave Yanchulis, an Access Board accessibility specialist. “This is true for all buildings, including those that are new and fully accessible.”When it came time to develop an emergency management plan, the staff realized they had to tailor it to potential visitors, its location, and the fact that it is a government agency. In the event of a disaster of the magnitude of what occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, The Access Board offices would surely be evacuated, says Peg Blechman, a compliance specialist at The Access Board.The Access Board’s plan, which is available on the organization’s website (, is tailored specifically to the Board and its needs in various disaster scenarios.A small volunteer emergency evacuation committee first developed the plan after discussing evacuation issues with the staff at large and with individual employees with disabilities, whom they queried about preferences for evacuation.“Remember, not all disabilities are visible,” Davis points out. “There are individuals who have different types of disabilities, such as asthma or a heart condition, and might not choose to identify that to an employer. In one high-rise office building, you might have those with visible disabilities and those with invisible ones, those with permanent ones and those with temporary or episodic needs. You will have people who will choose to identify and those who will choose not to. It’s more complex than saying ‘We met our ADA standards of having the bathrooms accessible and making sure the stairwell is wide enough for someone in a wheelchair to wait for evacuation assistance.’ ”The committee then met with the building management, local fire department personnel, and a manufacturer of evacuation chairs, as well as other agencies and groups that have active evacuation plans involving persons with disabilities.The final plan covers such things as use of evacuation chairs, 10 of which The Access Board purchased; building characteristics such as stairwell size and fire alarm/extinguisher location; designated meeting locations for employees once they evacuate a building; types of alarms and elevator use; emergency contact information; information regarding workforce and any special needs; and training and practice, among other facets.The committee decided to post its plan online after numerous other federal agencies and other organizations requested copies of the plan for their own inspiration.“People should not use our plan as a script,” Blechman says. “We developed it for our staff, our building, and our location. But, people can see how and why we developed it. It is a combination of what can be done to the building itself and also what types of equipment we can use for our needs.”Codes and Standards Play a Role, TooBesides taking into account the personal needs of tenants and staff when you develop your emergency evacuation plan, you also have to make sure you cover all points required by the ADA.While there may be greater interest in accessible evacuation as a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the design requirements for accessible egress are not new, Yanchulis says.The Board’s ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), which were published in 1991, include specifications for accessible means of egress, areas of rescue assistance, emergency alarms, and signage. ADAAG primarily covers new construction and alteration of facilities subject to the ADA (title III). Model building codes, life safety codes, and state access codes also address these and other elements related to emergency egress, Yanchulis notes.“Owners or operators of existing facilities can consult ADAAG for design features (  covering accessible egress,” he says. “They can use ADAAG as a reference for determining whether, or to what extent, accessible means of egress are available at a facility. Also, alarms, signage, and areas of rescue assistance are important components of accessible egress, as covered in ADAAG.”Getting Started with Your Own Accessible Egress PlanForethought and advance planning are key to putting together an emergency evacuation plan that works, emergency management and accessibility experts say. You don’t want to be developing a plan on the fly in the midst of disaster.“You want to do this when you have the luxury of time. You want to have time to discover mistakes and go back and correct them,” Davis says. “While you hope you won’t have to implement any of this at all, you don’t want to find solutions during an event.”In a commercial building with multiple tenants, the building management safety officer should create an emergency planning team of representatives from each tenant organization’s emergency team. Once that team is in place, start discussing each tenant’s disability-related issues.The concept of a voluntary special needs registry is one of the stickiest issues that building managers deal with, Davis adds. In order to craft an evacuation plan that suits everyone’s specific requirements, employees and tenants with disabilities would have to identify their needs to building management.“Can you require that?” Davis asks, adding that facilities managers need to consult their legal counsel with respect to that issue. “It’s an emerging area, and it still is being debated. You have competing interests: the individual right to privacy vs. a need for safety. The question is, ‘How much can you require vs. how much can you ask for voluntarily?’ ”Although no perfect plan is prewritten for every commercial facility, NOD developed the Emergency Preparedness Initiative Guide for Emergency Managers ( under Davis’ direction. While this comprehensive guide is designed to ensure that emergency managers at the jurisdiction level (city, state, county, etc.) address disability concerns and that people with disabilities are included in the emergency planning process, parts of it can be useful to building owners and operators, Davis says.“There is no single ‘plan in a can’ for any of this,” Davis says. “If any building manager thinks he or she can keep searching the Internet or publications for the perfect manual and think they’ve found it, they’re kidding themselves. You can’t just erase the name off the top of someone else’s plan and replace it with your own. It’s a recipe for disaster.”Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.ADA Design Requirements for Accessible EgressAccessible Means of EgressThe Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines’ (ADAAG’s) criteria addresses both the minimum number of egress routes and the technical specifications, including the typical loss of use of elevators in multi-story buildings during emergencies. This situation is addressed through requirements for areas of rescue assistance or horizontal exits. Areas of Rescue AssistanceThis section describes the criteria for fire-resistant spaces where persons unable to use stairs can call for and await evacuation assistance from emergency personnel. These “areas of rescue assistance” or “areas of refuge” must meet specifications for fire resistance and ventilation and must include two-way communication devices. These areas are required only in new buildings.Evacuation ElevatorsModel building codes, such as the International Building Code, and reference standards now include criteria for elevators designed to remain functional in emergencies, otherwise known as “evacuation elevators.” The Access Board has included requirements for these elevators, consistent with model building codes, in its proposal to update ADAAG.AlarmsEmergency alarms must be accessible to persons with disabilities, including those with sensory impairments. Alarms should offer not only audible signals, but also visual ones, such as strobes, for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Guidelines include specifications for intensity, flash rate, mounting location, and other characteristics. Visual alarms are required in hallways, lobbies, restrooms, and any other general usage and common use areas.SignageCertain types of signs must be tactile. Raised and Braille characters are required on signs that designate permanent spaces, including restrooms, exits, and rooms and floors designated by numbers or letters. This includes floor-level designations provided in stairwells.SOURCE: THE ACCESS BOARD’S ADA ACCESSIBILITY GUIDELINES (

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