Lawrence Webster Forrest (LWF), Fire Engineering and Fire Risk Management Consultants
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EB-7 Fire safety and the disability discrimination act

Right click to download this fileArc E-Bulletin 007a.pdf

The Disabled Discrimination Act (DDA - 1995) came into force on the 2nd of December 1996, and made requirements on employers and service providers relating to the provision of disabled access into and around buildings.

The original code was revised on the 1st of October 1999 in the light of experience gained since the first implementation and to take account of the duties imposed on service providers. Since the 1st of October 2004 the parts of the Disabled Discrimination Act that relate to the physical environment came into effect.

The main parts of the acts were as follows:

·         since the 2nd of  December 1996 it has been unlawful for service providers to treat disabled people less favourably for a reason related to their disability;

·         since the 1st of October 1999 service providers have had to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled people, such as providing extra help or making changes to the way they provide their services; and

·         since the 1st of October 2004 service providers have had to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in relation to the physical features of their premises to overcome physical barriers to access.

The Act is aimed to remove barriers that discriminate against employment, services and premises for disabled people. It puts in place the right of access to goods, services, facilities and premises and it therefore makes it unlawful to treat disabled people less favourably on grounds of disability.

As stated to meet these duties employers and service providers have been making ‘reasonable adjustments’ and since its introduction many buildings have been improving access for people with disabilities.

Subject to some exclusions, the latest part of the Act affects everyone concerned with the provision in the UK of services to the public, whether in the private, public or voluntary sectors. It does not matter if services are provided free (such as access to a library) or in return for payment (for example, purchasing a meal in a restaurant).

Some examples of the services which are covered are those provided to the public by local councils, Government departments and agencies, the emergency services, charities, voluntary organisations, hotels, restaurants, pubs, post offices, banks, building societies, leisure centres, theatres, cinemas, hairdressers, shops, hospitals and clinics and many, many more.

However as with any new legislation, issues and problems still arise as, unfortunately, when people think of the disabled they automatically think of people in wheelchairs. However the term ‘disabled’ incorporates a much wider group, not only does it include those classified as mentally or physically disabled but also those who are visually or aurally impaired, those recovering from operations or recent injuries and many others.


Recent government estimates suggest that there are around 9 million disabled adults in the UK, which constitutes approximately 15 per cent of the electorate. Statistics show that approximately seven per cent of adults were born with an impairment and there is an increased likelihood of developing an impairment as people get older, however it is wrong to assume that all older people are disabled.

In the UK, there are approximately 600,000 wheelchair users, half of whom use their wheelchairs on a permanent basis and the other half will mainly use their wheelchairs to assist long distance mobility and may be able to undertake certain tasks without using their chair.

There are about 2.5 to 3 million people in the UK with a visual impairment or poor vision.

Approximately 9 million people in the UK experience some form of hearing loss. This can vary from mild hearing loss to profound deafness. Of these 9 million people only around a quarter wear hearing aids.

Of course these disabilities are only the tip of the iceberg with there being many other types of disability, but reviewing these statistics it becomes clearer why when designing and managing properties a large number of different disabilities need to be taken account of. Therefore to meet the requirements of the Disabled Discrimination Act many organisation have had disabled access audits undertaken. These audits take place by way of an inspection, which reviews access in and around a property. Such audits review the means by which the organisation’s premises are accessed. These audits identify any changes needed to provide access to all facilities for persons who are physically disabled and unable to use traditional or existing means to move around buildings.

The access consultant might be able to make recommendations for service ‘provision’ in convenient locations, but often, the ‘unique’ parts of the organisation are located in the most remote and inaccessible part of the building.

The access consultant is only charged with planning access into and around a building. Some access audits, which achieve the objective of general access, however miss the opportunity to integrate an emergency evacuation strategy. This means that work carried out to improve access has to be supplemented at a later date with further disabled egress work. This results in potential cost savings being missed – and, often, a less than satisfactory solution.

So whose responsibility is the emergency evacuation of the disabled?

The answer is the occupier of the premises. His or her responsibility is outlined within the Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 as amended. The fire risk assessment process makes it quite clear that any change in risk to life from fire should be reflected with appropriate measures taken to offset any risks identified. Allowing disabled persons into the building by means of lifts or other powered systems without providing for suitable means of egress is increasing the life risk, quite possibly to an unacceptable level.

The Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations 1997 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 - of which Regulation 8 of the latter says that 'every employer shall:

(a) establish and where necessary give effect to appropriate procedures to be followed in the event of serious and imminent danger to persons at work in his undertaking; 

(b) nominate a sufficient number of competent persons to implement those procedures in so far as they relate to the evacuation from premises of persons at work in his undertaking'.

The Fire Service are not responsible for the evacuation of anyone abled or less abled - it is the employer's duty to do so.

The Fire Service has a duty to rescue people. The term "Rescue" infers that someone must be in a life-threatening situation requiring the immediate intervention by the fire brigade.

A less abled / mobility impaired person positioned in a refuge isn't someone whom requires rescue, they are certainly not in a life threatening situation unless of course somehow the fire has spread into the refuge area which would be extremely rare. However the employer should have in place suitable procedures to safely evacuate this person from the refuge in an emergency situation.

So therefore if access is given to areas within the property then clearly egress arrangements must also be put in place to ensure the safe evacuation of disabled persons from the property.

What fire precautions should be put in place?

Means of Escape

It is essential that all occupants of any building are able to leave quickly from an area that may involve or be in danger from fire. The principles involved when designing escape strategies remain constant for all buildings and involve planning and protecting escape routes leading to safety both horizontally and vertically, construction and surface finishing to be of adequate fire resistance, the segregation of high risk areas and the provision of means of giving warning of fire and, where appropriate, detecting outbreaks of fire. The structural provision regarding means of escape still assumes that the users are able-bodied and therefore the presumption of independent capability to use steps and negotiate buildings is clearly inadequate when dealing with the safe egress of the disabled. It will, therefore, be necessary to incorporate features to accommodate the needs of disabled users. These can simply be an extension of management procedures, inclusion of something extra like disabled refuges or suitable evacuation lifts or even the provision of evacuation equipment such as evac chairs, and staff trained in their use, to safely evacuate disabled persons. When the disability in question is that other than physical, improvements could be an upgrade of general signage, sounders and training staff. However, some disabled persons will not be able to negotiate stairs whether it is steps between changes of level within a story or an escape stair. To accommodate wheelchair users ramps can be installed, where appropriate, and a common strategy is to provide refuges within the property. 

The inclusion of refuges within buildings is now common place but they have requirements in their design.

Refuges should:

·         Be constructed from materials providing fire resistances to BS 5588 Part 8 / BS 476;

·         Be protected by self-closing fire doors with a minimum fire resistance of 30 minutes;

·         Be protected from the affects of smoke and other products of combustion (intumescent backed cold smoke seal); and

·         Be clearly signed.

And to assist the management of the property and to provide disabled people with the necessary level of reassurance the refuges should be fitted with a suitable two-way communication system. These communications systems are vital, to allow the building management to provide the necessary staff assistance in the appropriate areas as quickly as possible. In addition it enables control room staff to keep disabled people in the refuge informed of all emergency-related developments whilst they wait for assistance.

When incorporating a refuge into a building it is essential that its location does not effect the means of escape and people can exit without having to negotiate round wheel chairs.

Fire Alarms

As far as fire detection systems are concerned any fire alarm design would be designed from a risk based approach and should therefore make allowances for incorporating means for alerting the disabled into any fire alarm situation.

Fire alarm warnings for people with impaired hearing

Impairment of hearing does not mean that a person is completely insensitive to sound and perception of some types of conventional audible alarm signals and could therefore require no additional special provision for warning of fire. However there are some situations where a person with impaired hearing could be alerted by others in the close proximity to the need for evacuation. Of course this will necessitate that procedures are in place to ensure that others provide the necessary warning to the person with impaired hearing.

Where significant numbers of people with impaired hearing, working in relative isolation, then additional means of giving warning to people with impaired hearing might be appropriate. If the occupants in question tend to be situated for a large proportion of their time within a selected area of the building, visual alarm signals or beacons might be appropriate in that area (and associated toilets). If they sleep in the building, tactile devices, with or without associated visual alarm devices, might need to be considered. These devices are usually placed under pillows or mattresses, and wired into fire alarm device circuits or be triggered by radio signals.

However upgrading an existing alarm system with xenon beacons could require considerable rewiring, upgrading of power supplies and expense. The invention and continued development of LED products, however, has allowed the addition of beacons to a system, in most cases, with little impact. In some instances existing sounders can merely be swapped for combined sounder / LED beacons with no impact to wiring or power supply capacity.

Visual alarms are restricted to line of sight, so unlike sounders where some reliance is made on the sound to spread, with beacons they will have to be provided in the area the person with the disability occupies. The likelihood is that there would not be a sounder provided to that location, which would mean additional rewiring, works and expense.

Other fire alarm warning methods include the use of vibrating radio pagers, which are intended for carrying by the hearing impaired and capable of giving visual and/or tactile signals.

Manual call point height

A common misconception is that manual call points need to be fitted at a lower height for wheelchair disabled personnel to activate. BS 5839 states that all call points should be fixed at a height of 1.4 m above finished floor level, at easily accessible and conspicuous positions. However a lower mounting height is acceptable in circumstances where there is a high likelihoodthat the first person to raise an alarm of fire will be a wheelchair user. Of course the 1.4 m figure is arbitrary and reflects long established custom and practice.

Management systems
Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPS)

Management of an emergency situation is critical in any building. As management have such a large part to play when evacuating a premises the processes involved should be in written form and easy to follow and all persons should be totally familiar with the buildings emergency plan.

Various problems can occur when evacuating disabled occupants but these can be negated through simple procedures. The first step would be to identify who within the building is disabled, for staff this could come as a simple questionnaire at employment stage. This becomes problematic when the general public are involved and this would have to be taken into account and arrangements put in place. The appointment of fire wardens to specific areas or floors could be introduced and they could have various tasks to ensure a smooth evacuation of the building is undertaken and people who need assistance receive it. It is also essential that any evacuation plan is practised to ensure that all staff are aware of what to do, where to go and who to report to. This then allows for staff to be trained in specific tasks (buddy system, etc and suitable cover in case of absence or illness of the relevant parties.) like ensuring disabled people have reached their respected refuge or using evacuation chairs if the need arises.

The personal emergency evacuation plan is designed to ensure that disabled people have a planned escape procedure that may or may not include assistance from others. The plan is a record of information gathered and agreed between the disabled person and the employer. This plan should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis to ensure that conditions and requirements have not changed. The plan should be developed for existing members of disabled staff and for all new employees who may have a disability, identified by themselves or management.

The plan is to determine an escape strategy with the individual, devise a means of locating the person in the building when the alarm is sounded and designating people to give assistance if required. The emergency evacuation plan is not designed to make up for any inadequacy in the means of escape of the building. The plan will be unique to the individual, taking into account the type of disability and the characteristics of the building layout and facilities provided. Management must also take account of any temporary disabilities that can occur (latter stages of pregnancy, leg injuries, etc.) within a property and put in place suitable ‘temporary’ procedures as necessary to ensure the safe evacuation of these people.

The plan will only work successfully if the information gained is accurate. The best source of information is from the disabled people themselves. The quickest and simplest way to gain information is by using a questionnaire as part of a consultation process. The questionnaire can be sent to existing personnel and also form part of induction training for new members of staff. Once this information has been obtained the next stage would be to set up interviews with the people for a face-to-face discussion.

Once the plan has been finalised it can be used as a record to show that the evacuation strategy has been agreed with all parties involved. Facilities that are already provided can be detailed within the plan. It will also highlight to management any deficiencies with the existing facilities and the areas where improvement is necessary, whether these are physical or procedural.

The plan must be completed by someone who is qualified to identify the needs of a wide range of disabilities.

Of course this Bulletin only briefly touches upon the disabled issues regarding access and egress. Disabled and fire safety can be an extremely difficult and complicated issue however additional guidance can be obtained from British Standard 5588 part 8 which gives information on refuges, stairways, ramps and lifts (including evacuation lifts) and British Standard 5588 part 12 which provides advice to management on fire procedures, evacuation techniques and strategies.

General access and emergency egress should be developed with disabled personnel in mind and designed to ensure that they have a safe, secure and reliable means of escaping from a building in a fire situation. The procedures, equipment, refuges, etc should all be in place to ensure that they have utmost confidence in the provisions being supplied and that they will receive suitable assistance. It is critically important that all these points are considered when reviewing disabled access and egress in existing buildings or when designing a new one. Disabled egress shouldn’t be considered at a late stage where costs and application might seem discouraging or expensive. Early thought and design can help to reduce costs and assist difficult applications. LWF can provide specialist advice on how to achieve suitable disabled egress strategy, procedures or design.

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