Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans, or PEEPs, are critical documents that need to be developed for some building occupants. An effective PEEP could literally be the difference between life and death.

Generally, people will go about their day to day activities without putting too much thought to the emergency procedures in place within a building in which they reside, work or frequent each day. People assume they are protected from harm. Unfortunately, history tells us that we need to plan for emergencies. This responsibility rests on employers, building owners and building management to ensure that effective emergency management plans that consider the needs of all occupants have been developed.

There is a common belief that the needs of people with disability are not being considered and are often omitted from emergency management plans. Those in control of our workplaces, apartment buildings and public buildings must consider evacuation arrangements for people with disability when developing these procedures. It is no longer acceptable to dismiss these obligations and to exclude people with disability from emergency planning and evacuation drills.

Under the workplace, health and safety laws in Australia, an employer has a duty to provide a safe environment for people in their workplaces. The standard that provides technical guidance in this area, AS3745-2010 Planning for Emergencies in the Workplace, states:

“When developing emergency response procedures, consideration shall be given to occupants and visitors who for one reason or another may need assistance or are unlikely to be able to act optimally in an emergency.”

The intent of this statement is quite clear when it states “consideration shall be given.” One could assume that when developing an emergency plan that you must therefore consider not only people with disability, but other groups including the very young, the elderly, those injured in the emergency, people recovering from medical treatment or surgery, pregnant women and those experiencing emotional stress.

When developing emergency response procedures, there are a number of key factors to consider:

  1. The building’s early warning system including audible and visual alarms
  2. Occupant familiarity with the emergency plans and rehearsal of their use
  3. Occupant characteristics
  4. Providing (and maintaining) an accessible means of egress (i.e. the exit routes)
  5. The communication and wayfinding strategies to relay information to occupants during the emergency

In terms of planning for people with disability, the following points must be considered:

  • Every person with a disability has unique abilities and limitations. Accommodations should therefore be tailored to the individuals needs.
  • People with disability should be involved in all stages of the development and review of a PEEP.
  • It is critical that the individual is included in the decision on which equipment and procedures will work for them. This adds assurances that they will be protected.
  • It is common for many organisations to develop a generic PEEP that is not tailored to the individual. A generic template for a PEEP such as the one provided as an appendix to AS3745-2010 may not satisfy all situations, all types of disabilities or the specifics of each workplace, and may not address a person’s unique needs.

Once the emergency response procedures are developed, tailored PEEPs can be prepared for each individual who “for one reason or another may need assistance or are unlikely to be able to act optimally in an emergency.”

A good approach to identify these individuals is to ask existing staff and any new staff in the future to complete an evacuation questionnaire with generic questions where a respondent can provide as much information as they wish about their own needs during an evacuation.

AS3745-2010 defines a PEEP as “an individualised emergency plan designed for an occupant who may need assistance during an emergency.” A PEEP considers the specific needs of each individual and the building egress and fire safety provisions within the building. In some cases, an occupational therapist familiar with the individual needs of the person being the subject of the PEEP may need to liaise with the person, their carer, or personal assistant to determine an individual’s evacuation needs.

A PEEP must also consider the needs of each person once they are in an area of safety outside the building. This has not always been factored into a PEEP until it was discovered that some people who were assisted in their evacuation after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 were left on their own outside amid the building rubble of the bombing.

The minimum components of a PEEP are:

  1. A planned accessible means of egress (or route) to safety
  2. Identification of who is to provide assistance
  3. Any necessary equipment to assist the evacuation (i.e. evacuation chairs)
  4. The training required for individuals tasked with providing assistance
  5. Testing the PEEP by inclusion into regular emergency drills, including all provisions and equipment outlined within the PEEP

It is evident that greater planning and consideration for each person’s individual needs is required. A PEEP is essential for any person with a mobility impairment who cannot use a stairway as part of their egress route. A PEEP is also essential for other occupants who may have some difficulty, or experience a delay in being alerted to a building moving into alarm or evacuation mode, or those that may have challenges negotiating an evacuation route.