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Emergency Escape

People requiring assistance in order to escape are not restricted to those who are wheelchair users or those whose mobility is otherwise impaired. The evacuation needs of older people, blind and partially sighted people, hearing impaired people and people with language and learning difficulties also need to be considered. It is necessary therefore to make provision for this both in the design of a building and in the way it is managed.

  • Older people may need extra time or assistance
  • Blind and partially sighted people may require assistance in learning the emergency evacuation routes or assistance in proceeding down exit stairs
  • Hearing impaired people may require modification to the standard audible alarms
  • Cognitively impaired people may become confused when challenged with the unusual activity during an emergency, lose their sense of direction or may require having emergency directions broken down into simplified steps

The extent to which the building owner/managers will need to implement this assistance will vary with the type of building, its use, its users and location. In multi-storey buildings, for example, the fundamental strategy for evacuating disabled and older people usually involves two stages:

  • movement initally to a place of temporary safety (a refuge), followed by
  • assisted escape to the outside of the building

Structural measures and other features to be considered

Horizontal escape

Horizontal travel routes must be free from obstacles, such as steps or raised thresholds, which delay or impede travel in emergency escape. Where such obstacles occur, a ramp and steps with handrails should be provided. Notices or contrasting floor finishes are required to provide a warning of any level changes.

Vertical escape

Evacuation lifts

An evacuation lift must:

  • have the same fire resistance as a protected stairway
  • be clearly marked and signposted as such
  • have two independent power supplies
  • have controls that can be isolated
  • have any electrical boards, generators, hydraulic pumps protected by a fire-resisting enclosure

In larger premises, where possible, one or more lifts should be protected and designated as evacuation lifts for use by disabled people in the event of an emergency escape. Landings at evacuation lifts must be in refuges and within fire resistant walls and doors.

Tactile Braille Safety Sign

Stairs and ramps

Stair lifts and platform lifts should not be used as a means of escape.

The width of the escape stairway must be equal to the minimum required width for means of escape plus the width of any stair lift.

The maximum height of a stair-riser on upward escape stairs is 180mm.

Evacuation stairs must be between 1000mm and 1400mm wide between handrails.

The standard requirements for ramps, steps and stairs must be met, eg. step nosings should be colour contrasted and handrails should be a contrasting colour to the walls. Tactile thresholds are recommended at the top of flights of stairs.

Handrails, which should be continuous, on escape stairs and ramps should mark the direction of escape with an arrow on the top face. At the final storey the handrail should have "Exit" marked on its surface or on the wall close to the handrail.

Handrails that are placed on both sides of stairs are used as body supports to aid balance and movement, in particular by people with limited or no use of one arm.


For people unable to use stairs without assistance, one or more refuge points must be provided on all storeys affected to allow disabled people a place of safety until assistance arrives. The use of refuges is not ideal and evacuation lifts should be provided wherever possible. It can be extremely distressing for disabled and older people to wait in a refuge area during a fire or bomb alert.

A refuge area must be a minimum of 1400mm x 900mm and surrounded by a fire-resisting construction and provide a direct route to the storey exit. They should be clearly indicated by appropriate fire safety signs.

Refuges should be positioned:

Refuges should not be positioned:

Refuges need not be positioned in storeys with a floor area of less than 280 square metres in buildings which have only basement, ground and first floors in one occupancy.

A refuge point must be provided with an evacuation chair, eg. a Type A chair to British standard BS 5568. Evacuation chairs are now available which can be operated safely by one person. An appropriate evacuation aid must be provided to assist evacuation from a lower/basement level.

In some cases, eg. existing buildings, it may not be possible to provide an indoor refuge area, in these cases an external refuge may be used, so long as it is protected from fire and smoke escaping from the building. Generally, when providing external refuges, provision of a weather shelter canopy should be considered as should providing shelter at assembly areas.

Fire/evacuation alarm signals and lighting

Alarm systems should incorporate the use of flashing lights or paging/vibrating units to alert hearing impaired people. The latter are emergency alert systems which use radio transmitters to activate miniature receivers worn by deaf people. The receivers vibrate to attract attention and display messages. Such systems can provide safer, cost effective cover at larger public buildings and complexes.

Audible alarms should have a variable tone so that people with a loss of hearing in one part of the sound spectrum do not miss the alarm.

Powered way guidance lighting systems help partially sighted people when leaving buildings in an emergency, in addition to conventional overhead lighting.


Fire and smoke doors along escape routes should be 'rated'. They are generally rated at 30 minute fire resistance. Where a building is in use by people with disabilities and/or older people, the rate could be set higher eg. 60 or 120 minutes.

Escape route doors should open with crash bars and in the direction of escape.


Communication must be suitable for people with hearing and speech impairments. At the minimum, a flashing light should indicate that the evacuation co-ordinator has taken notice of their signal.

Sound guidance systems

Larger premises should consider providing sound beacons as they can be advantageous to people who are blind, have learning difficulties and those with a loss of hearing.

Emergency equipment

Fire extinguishers and other emergency equipment needs to be located where people with disabilities can easily reach and operate the equipment.

Fire extinguishers should be sited no more than 1200mm above floor level. If heavier types are provided these should have their base no higher than 650mm above the floor. Raising the extinguisher makes it easier for people with mobility impairments.


The above information was collected from the following sources:


Further information:

Other information:

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