Australian building legislation has generally steered clear of promoting the use of refuge areas in commercial buildings.

Whilst the use of areas of safe refuge were proposed in 1997 by the Australian Building Codes Board in Regulation Document RD 97/10, their use has never found its way into the building codes.

The rationale for the omission is on the basis that feedback received from RD 97/01 indicated that a more equitable egress solution, such as the use of evacuation lifts, is preferable. In 2013, the ABCB commented that the use of refuges may be considered in future regulatory proposals, but to date, this has not occurred. Similarly, the use of evacuation lifts continues to be a complicated and costly design solution, and one that has not been widely adopted.

So, let’s look at what is a ‘refuge area.’

In 1996, Canadian researchers Guylene Proulx and Joelle Pineau stated that “an area of refuge within a building can be known as a safe refuge, staging area, area of rescue assistance, refuge floor, refuge points, or an area of evacuation assistance and can include enclosed balcony areas or enclosed rooms.”

In Australia, Australian Standard (AS) 3745-2010 defines an area of safe refuge as an area “where occupants and visitors may wait for their delayed independent evacuation, or assisted evacuation by Emergency Services or other nominated personnel.”

Internationally, a refuge is defined differently, but common themes include fire-resistant construction, being a temporary safe place and providing confidence while waiting for further information, instructions, and/or rescue assistance.

In Australia, there is no current requirement to provide an accessible egress route for people with a disability or those who might experience difficulty using exit stairs, unless they form part of a fire-engineered solution. In contrast, the American International Building Code and American Disability Act require an area of safe refuge as part of an accessible means of egress.

The other problem with the use of refuge areas is a lack of awareness and lack of guidance material in how they are designed. As a minimum, the following design guidance should be considered when specifying or designing a refuge area in a new building design:

  • They should be provided on every accessible level of the building where a direct accessible egress path to a safe place outside the building is not available.
  • They should have sufficient spaces provided for the number of expected wheelchair users, in relation to the number of occupants on each level. The NFPA 101: Life Safety Code® requires one space per 200 occupants, which might be reasonable, but typical occupant characteristics can also be considered.
  • Adopt the 90th percentile Australian wheelchair size of 800 millimetres wide by 1,300 millimetres long from AS 1428.1-2009 for each space, rather than the US sizes (being slightly smaller).
  • Each space must be line marked and positioned outside the path of egress for other people evacuating the building.
  • The area must have a reliable two-way communication system with a direct line to the building emergency control room or emergency services. All communication equipment must be mounted at an accessible height.
  • Signage is a critical part of the refuge area design. Directional signage must be provided to advise people of where they are located, signage must be placed at the door leading into the area and there must be instructional signage inside the refuge explaining the evacuation strategy and use of the communication system. Signage should incorporate braille and tactile text.
  • Have appropriate lighting and emergency lighting in the area.
  • The area must be constructed within a fire and smoke resisting compartment and be located within the fire exit stairway, or directly adjoining a fire exit stairway. Alternatively, located on route to an evacuation lift.

Other best practice recommendations include:

  • The communication system should facilitate communication with information in visual and audible formats for those occupants with a speech or hearing impairment.
  • The volume of alarm sounders near a refuge area should be reduced as part of a fire engineered solution.
  • The communication system could incorporate a photoluminescent colour, braille text and a large button to activate the system.
  • Smoke control to ensure the design addresses any fluctuations in pressure due to opening and closing of doors, as well as the potential for broken windows and introduced wind pressures.
  • The refuge area must maintain its integrity for the expected time to wait for an available evacuation lift, or for assisted evacuation, of for the time it would take firefighters to reach the area.
  • Additionally, space could be allocated within the refuge area for the storage of evacuation equipment, including a stairway evacuation chair, work gloves (for clearing evacuation paths for wheelchair users or assistance animals), torches, and smoke hoods.

The added benefit of a refuge area on each level within an exit stairway, is that they provide a resting place for those people with limited endurance during an evacuation where a sustained effort is required, including the obese, pregnant women, older people or those easily fatigued.

Any proposed use of a refuge area must also be incorporated into a building’s emergency plans and into an individual’s PEEP.