Australian building legislation does not currently mandate an inclusive approach to the safe evacuation of buildings.

This poses a significant risk for the 20 per cent of the population with some form of disability, particularly the 10.5 per cent with a mobility disability when the options for evacuation in a multi-level building are generally limited to stairways only.

It therefore raises the question “how would a person with mobility limitations get to an exit level if they’re located on an upper or lower level when the alarms sound?”

This is even more important for the 0.6 per cent of the population that use a wheelchair.

Conventional passenger lifts can be very unsafe places during a fire and are not to be used in an emergency unless under direction from the fire brigade. Statutory signage in the Building Code of Australia addresses this danger by requiring warning signage adjacent to lift doors on all landings stating “Do not use lift if there is a fire.”

Obviously, passenger lifts provide an opportunity to move large numbers of people quickly to an exit level. Over the last four decades, there has been a growing consensus that tall buildings must consider the use of specially designed and constructed evacuation lifts as part of an integrated egress strategy.  It has been widely acknowledged that the use of evacuation lifts will speed up an evacuation and can be an important part of a means of egress for all occupants, not just those with a disability.

An evacuation lift has been defined as a “lift that can be used during an emergency, for self or assisted egress.”

Internationally, the use of evacuation lifts is becoming more commonplace and necessary as buildings reach new heights. Skyscrapers are increasingly getting taller and Richard W. Bukowski stated in 2008 that buildings have now reached a height where it’s no longer reasonable to expect occupants to use the fire stairs as part of the means of egress. He added that extremely tall buildings make it difficult – if not impossible – for emergency services personnel to carry equipment up the stairs.

Bukowski’s view is that occupant demographics are also changing. People now struggle when evacuating via stairs as people need to constantly rest, resulting in a slower evacuation. This was an observation from survivors of the 9/11 evacuations of the World Trade Center and will become an ever increasing concern as we grapple with an ageing population and longer working lives.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) recently stated that “every Australian has the right to feel confident that they will be able to evacuate from a building in a safe and independent manner should the need arise as a result of an emergency event.”

In fact, this is a right of all people with disability in any country that has ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Convention outlines these obligations, including a requirement to ensure the rights to safe egress in an emergency.

The Convention also outlines responsibilities to consider the principles of ‘universal design’. Article 4 of the Convention lists general obligations, including the requirement to:

  • undertake or promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities
  • promote their availability and use
  • promote universal design in the development of standards and guidelines.

When discussing egress solutions for people with disability, the ABCB recently declared that “lifts were seen to offer obvious accessibility advantages over other options for occupants with disability.” However, the ABCB recognised that there continues to be reluctance internationally to legislate requirements for evacuation lifts in new buildings.

In 2013, the ABCB released a non-mandatory handbook providing guidance when developing performance-based ‘alternative solutions’ adopting an evacuation strategy that includes the use of lifts. The handbook provides advice on lift designs, including consideration for clear and unambiguous Braille and tactile accessible signage on landings, fire and smoke protection for landings, smoke detection and management in lift shafts, reliable power supplies, reducing water damage as well as emergency management procedures.

Evacuation lifts that consider the principles of universal design must be considered in all future high-rise buildings. These buildings will also need to develop emergency management procedures that adopt a holistic or integrated approach to the safe evacuation of all building occupants. This integrated evacuation strategy will provide for a more inclusive approach to disability egress provisions. Ultimately, adoption of an inclusive approach to evacuating all building occupants, regardless of their abilities, will benefit everyone.

In the meantime, we need to think about the legislative gap relating to universal egress and adopt emergency management procedures that provide for Personal and Group Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPs and GEEPs) that consider the use of safe refuge areas and evacuation chairs for people who cannot negotiate a fire stairs.

It’s not an ideal solution, but what are the available options?