The LWF Blog

Designing and Managing Buildings – Taking account people with disabilities – Part Three, Fire Precautions

June 12, 2014 8:43 am

When considering fire safety and the timely evacuation of all persons within a building, it is essential that those occupants are able to quickly leave an area that may involve or be in danger from a fire. This means that in addition to the ‘normal’ precautions taken to ensure egress, enhanced precautions for differently-able people must be made. This blog will discuss Means of Escape, Refuges and Fire Alarms relating particularly to their use by wheelchair users and those persons with a hearing impairment.

Means of Escape

It is vital for life preservation in case of fire that all building occupants are able to evacuate quickly and/or be moved to a place of safety within the building. When designing escape routes, the principle is true of all buildings and involves the planning and protection of escape routes leading to safety – both horizontally and vertically, construction and surface finishing to be fire resistant, high risk areas to be segregated and the means to detect and warn of fire.

The standard structural provision regarding means of escape 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 additional needs of disabled users. 

Such features can take the form of an extension of management procedures, i.e.  the inclusion of something extra like disabled refuges, suitable evacuation lifts-  or even the provision of evacuation equipment such as evac chairs coupled with staff trained in their use –  to safely evacuate disabled persons. 

When the disability in question is other than physically restrictive, improvements could be made to signage, sounders and through staff training. 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.  

Refuges designed for wheelchair users

The inclusion of refuges within buildings is now common place but they have specific requirements in relation to 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 effects of smoke and other products of combustion (intumescent backed cold smoke seal)
  • Be clearly signposted

In order 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 to 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 affect 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 system design should be designed from a risk-based approach and would therefore incorporate the means for alerting disabled persons to any fire alarm situation. 

Fire alarm warnings for people with impaired hearing

A person who suffers from impaired hearing may still be sensitive to some types of sound, such as the noise made by a traditional fire alarm. However, this is not true across the board and so additional provision should be made. One such provision might be that a person with impaired hearing would be alerted by staff in the vicinity to the need for evacuation, but this relies solely on sufficient staff training and procedures.

Where it is likely that there will be significant numbers of people with impaired hearing, working or congregating in relative isolation, then additional means of giving warning to people with impaired hearing would be appropriate. Visual alarm signals or xenon beacons might be appropriate in that area (and associated toilets). If persons with impaired hearing sleep in the building, then tactile devices, with or without associated visual alarm devices, need to be considered. These devices are usually placed under pillows or mattresses and wired directly into the fire alarm device circuits, or are triggered by radio signals.

Upgrading an existing alarm system with xenon beacons could, in the past, 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.

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.

Next week’s blog will continue on the subject of fire safety in terms of evacuation provision for people with disabilities by looking more closely at Manual Call Points and Management Systems.

If you have any queries about this blog or about planning safe evacuation of disabled persons in your current project or new build, please contact Peter Gyere on 0208 668 8663 for more information or to speak to one of our Fire Engineers.

Lawrence Webster Forrest is a fire engineering and fire risk management consultancy established in 1986, with experience in the development of fire engineered technology and the application of fire safety standards including fire engineered techniques.

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