The needs of people with disabilities must be a priority when considering the overall evacuation strategy of a building.
An ‘accessible means of egress’ is a relatively new term in Australia, though it is one that is widely accepted in many parts of the world and was adopted into the 2009 International Building Code (or ‘IBC’) published by the International Code Council. This term encompasses the parts of a building that make up the evacuation route for people with disability during an emergency evacuation.
A means of egress for all building occupants is defined in Section 10 of the IBC as a "continuous and unobstructed path of vertical and horizontal egress travel from any occupied portion of a building or structure to a public way."
A means of egress consists of three distinct components:
- The exit access, being the part of the means of egress that leads from any occupied part of a building to an exit.
- The exit, being a part of the egress system which is separated from other interior occupiable spaces of a building by fire-resistance-rated construction, including fire doors, which provides a protected path of egress between the exit access and the exit discharge.
- The exit discharge, being that part of the means of egress between the exit and a public way.
One could also include an additional component to the means of egress, being the public way itself, essentially defined as a street, laneway, or other parcel of land open to the outside air. The requirements outlined above are basically the same as those in the National Construction Code (NCC).
In contrast to the NCC, the IBC acknowledges the additional needs of people with disability when evacuating a building and considers the challenges that this user group may face when trying to exit a building during an emergency.
To address the needs of people with disabilities, particularly those who are unable to exit via a vertical path (i.e. a fire escape stairway) the IBC includes a requirement for at least one ‘accessible means of egress’ for every accessible space in new building works, though alterations to existing buildings are granted an exemption.
The IBC defines the ‘accessible means of egress’ as a "continuous and unobstructed way of egress travel from any accessible point in a building or facility to a public way."
An IBC accessible means of egress may include any combination of the following components and be continuous when leading to the public way:
- Accessible paths of travel
- Internal and external exit stairs
- Emergency evacuation lifts
- Platform lifts
- Horizontal exits
- Areas of Refuge, with two-way communication
- Signage and instructions
- Directional signage
The situation that presently exists in Australia is that people with disabilities are not always provided a way out of a building during an emergency. Where they are, this is usually by coincidence when they’re able to exit through the same accessible entrance by which they arrived.
When we consider that people with disabilities may be working or visiting other levels of a building other than the entrance level, there will obviously be limitations for some occupants in terms of safe evacuation. This presents a risk for any commercial property owner, facility manager or employer. It also presents a risk for a nation with a growing obesity rate and an ageing population that could find a vertical egress route difficult.
It must be acknowledged that the current NCC has very limited prescriptive requirements (referred to as ‘Deemed-to-Satisfy’ provisions) relating to the evacuation of people with disability. The NCC does not address the issues around negotiating a vertical egress path. Surely it is time to consider the IBC egress route components outlined above and require them in Australian buildings. At present, these needs may be only addressed when stakeholders take a more pro-active approach or when they opt for a ‘performance-based’ fire engineered approach to compliance using the ‘performance requirements’ of the NCC.
Unfortunately, when the absolute minimum is provided as part of a building design and only the ‘Deemed-to-Satisfy’ provisions are met, we’re ignoring a portion of society and their needs for evacuation.
When we compare the Australian situation to the requirements overseas, it is clear there must be further debate as to how the concept of an ‘accessible means of egress’ in some form can be adopted into the NCC. This debate must consider the international requirements for the accessible means of egress path to be continuous from all accessible parts of a building to a safe place outside the building, which may include the use of evacuation lifts, refuge areas, or assisted evacuation techniques such as the use of evacuation chairs, in conjunction with good emergency evacuation procedures.