Group Emergency Evacuation Plans, or GEEPs, are critical documents needed for public buildings with visitors unfamiliar with evacuation arrangements. An effective GEEP reduces risk and could be the difference between a safe evacuation and a major disaster.
A workplace PEEP can be developed and implemented relatively easily for any employee who has self-disclosed their own needs. However, people with disability may not always be so forward in disclosing or discussing their abilities and may not wish to disclose any activity limitation for fear of repercussions.
It’s therefore important that any emergency evacuation plan has some level of contingencies, or general accommodations for those people who have not been identified and not had an individual PEEP developed, including those who may have a temporary impairment (i.e. a broken leg), are pregnant or acquire an emergent disability during an actual emergency.
In terms of members of the public visiting a public building, it can be even more complex and difficult to manage, particularly in a public assembly building. This could present some challenges for a building or facility manager. Any person responsible for a building must have strategies in place to ensure that any persons not familiar with the emergency management procedures within a building can safely evacuate the building. These strategies should be documented within a Group (or General) Emergency Evacuation Plan.
Workplace health and safety laws in Australia contain obligations for employers to provide a safe environment for people in their workplaces. This obligation extends to all occupants, regardless of their abilities or if they are employees or members of the public.
AS3745-2010 Planning for Emergencies in the Workplace states that the needs of those people not familiar with the emergency response procedures shall be considered. By considering these people (including those with a disability), the risk of a person being left in the building (i.e. due to physical harm) and risk for the building owner or manager (i.e. due to litigation, bad press, loss of business, loss of reputation etc.) is greatly reduced.
Some simple strategies that have been suggested for a GEEP include:
- Providing a sign at reception counters stating “We operate a system of assisted evacuation for visitors with disabilities. Please tell our receptionist your requirements.”
- Unambiguous wayfinding and exit signage, displayed in accessible formats with Braille and tactile characters.
- Displaying large emergency evacuation diagrams that clearly shown where a person is located and accessible paths of egress. This might include directing people with mobility impairments to an evacuation lift or staging area for assisted evacuation.
- Providing the information in a range of formats (Braille, large print, etc.).
- Establishing good communication strategies, including public announcements updating occupants with information.
- Visual alarms in isolated locations (i.e. change rooms and toilets) and in public spaces.
- Security staff in public assembly buildings, shopping centres and the like who can implement standardised GEEP actions during an emergency.
- The use of security cameras is advantageous to monitor people’s behaviour and movement within egress routes, particularly important to identify people who may find the evacuation difficult.
- Tour group organisers have an important role and can be used as part of the plans to manage their group’s evacuation.
- In hotels and other accommodation type buildings, the booking and check-in procedure could offer an opportunity to identify additional needs by asking general questions during each process (such as "would visual and tactile alarm notification systems, pagers etc. be required"). These arrangements can also be displayed in accessible rooms and throughout public areas of the building.
- Staff with evacuation responsibilities should also attend training on disability awareness and methods of assistance, including the use of any evacuation devices such as evacuation chairs or evacuation lifts. This would include all fire wardens and security staff.
- A GEEP must have the ability to meet the needs of any person with disability, with staff on hand to provide assistance, act as their ‘buddy’, and guide them to a place of safety or refuge area for a staged evacuation.
There have been a number of recent events that provide justification for the use of GEEPs. Large parts of Turkey recently experienced power outages which reportedly caused chaos in public transport systems. Washington DC also recently experienced similar power outages. Statistically, when looking at the demographics of society, these outages would have left a proportion of building occupants in subways or on levels of a building where assistance would be required to safely evacuate each facility or building. Consideration of the above strategies could reduce the risk of an occupant with an activity limitation being restricted in their evacuation, or worse still, being left behind whilst others evacuate.