Greater clarity for building owners and business leaders on fire safety responsibilities

Ges Wallace

In this article, Ges Wallace, Managing Director of Evac+Chair International, discusses the need for a revised approach on fire safety for business leaders and building owners, urging both groups to take a stronger initiative to ensure measures are in place and they are fully legally aware.

Organisations strive to make sure buildings are accessible for disabled people, but it is often the case that little thought is paid to making sure they can get out safely in an emergency.

There are 14.1million disabled people in the UK and, with 4.4million in the workplace, all should be adequately protected in case of an emergency situation.

Most businesses and building owners have the best intentions, with all of the right risk assessments in place and legal requirements fulfilled. However, many are ill-informed on their responsibilities to provide ways and means, for disabled and temporarily disabled people to exit a building in an evacuation – and this has the power to save lives.

With the clear onus on businesses and building owners to know their responsibilities, there is also a lack of legal clarity in this area. To support them in this, as well as helping disabled people to be better aware of their rights, our UK laws and regulations must change.

Legislative loophole

To prepare for an emergency, disabled workers and tenants require personal emergency evacuation plans (PEEPS) and additional evacuation equipment. However, this is not currently required by law and a lack of education on how they should be correctly implemented is putting lives at risk.

What is even less known is that PEEPS are required for both disabled and temporarily disabled individuals. Temporarily disabled, by definition, are those who have short-term mobility issues, for example in some cases of pregnancy or injury.

Compounding this problem, fire safety regulations do not specify evacuation systems or equipment for people with disabilities or temporary mobility issues as a legal requirement in buildings. The statistics support this alarming fact, as out of all fire safety audits conducted in 2019/20, only 66 per cent of all buildings were deemed satisfactory. [01]

While the person responsible for fire safety has a responsibility to do a risk assessment and put measures in place to support the safe evacuation of people from the building, regulations do not state what should be in place to properly support the disabled.

More to be done

It is vital that businesses know their responsibilities and people with disabilities – whether lifelong or temporary – know their rights around safely getting out of a building in an emergency.

As highlighted, there is great confusion – and a legislative gap – around what business owners and building managers responsible for fire safety need to have in place to properly protect staff, visitors and the public.

We also see a lack of awareness around responsibilities for people with temporary disabilities or impairments – such as a broken leg or mental health condition. The fact is, business and building owners are responsible and in a worst-case scenario be fined or charged with corporate manslaughter.

We need to make sure that everyone, whether able-bodied or not, can escape quickly and safely from a building in an emergency situation.

Approaching fire safety

We are not challenging policies concerning “phased evacuation” or the “stay put policy” our point is that in many situations the safe and speedy evacuation of everybody, including the mobility impaired is possible with the correct equipment and training in place.

Sadly, without legislation and the confusion over responsibilities, this will not happen and those with mobility impairments will be at risk from being left behind or even worse, attempting to escape and blocking the evacuation route, putting others at risk.

I wonder how many buildings would be without fire extinguishers without legislation?

Time for change

A complete rethink of the law is needed and we want businesses to work with us and make sure they have the right measures in place. At the same time, education and better awareness are needed to raise awareness of individuals’ safety-related duty.

Evac+Chair has always been dedicated to ensuring everybody has the means to evacuate safely and efficiently. The original Evac+Chair was designed by David Egen, whose wife had polio as a child and in adulthood needed to be evacuated from the 38th floor of a building in Manhattan, New York. Since then, it has earned its place in the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York for saving lives.

Against the backdrop of the Grenfell tragedy, and its surrounding enquiries, it is time for us all to be working together, creating change and making sure people, disabled or temporarily mobility impaired, are kept safe in our buildings.