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Are Your Tenants Safe?

How will occupants with special needs be accommodated?

As discussed in the initial phase, there may be a variety of occupants who may require some type of assistance to evacuate. This group could include restrained individuals, incapacitated individuals (because of the emergency or for other reasons), children, elderly people and people with disabilities.

Where there is a known, regular population of occupants with special needs, developing a procedure for providing any required assistance will be fairly simple.

The more complicated situations will involve those people with special needs who are not regular occupants. While both restrained individuals and any visiting children will typically arrive at a building with supervisor(s) and such supervisor(s) could be expected to provide any required assistance, a person with a disability could be visiting a building alone or with another visitor who is incapable of providing evacuation assistance. In addition, some individuals may be injured during the initial incident and may require assistance to evacuate. This presents a broad group of occupants that may potentially require varying degrees of assistance. The varied nature of possible scenarios points to the value of having a well-trained emergency team in place throughout the building. In the event of an evacuation order, any individual requiring assistance can be directed to an emergency team member who can provide (or summon people trained to provide) the needed assistance. However, due to the unknown nature of the assistance that may be needed, a good deal of training will be required for those team members who will provide assistance. Alternatively, emergency team members could use the emergency communication system to summon trained personnel in most cases, but still receive some general training so that anyone in imminent danger can be immediately moved.

One concept that has been the subject of much debate in recent years is that of "areas of refuge" (also known as "areas of rescue assistance," "areas of evacuation assistance" or "staging areas"). Essentially, this concept involves compartmenting a floor so that people with disabilities can move to the non-fire side and await evacuation. A 1992 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) determined that compartmentation is unnecessary in a sprinklered building, and in a non-sprinklered building areas of refuge may quickly become untenable unless substantial pressurization is provided. While this issue will be debated for several years, the following facts remain: Existing buildings without areas of refuge are abundant, there is no record of any fatalities resulting from people with disabilities being unable to evacuate. If the emergency plan can evacuate people with disabilities from areas that are severely threatened along with all other occupants, the hazard to the person with a disability is no greater than that to any other evacuating occupant.

(The following information is excerpted from Emergency Procedures for Employees with Disabilities in Office Occupancies, Pub. No. FA154, June 1995, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and United States Fire Administration.)

Movement

By far, the greatest range of special needs exists in moving people to safe areas. People using wheelchairs, or with other obvious mobility disabilities, come immediately to mind. However, there are many people that may not appear to have a disability but will also require special assistance.

Permanent conditions such as arthritis or temporary conditions such as a sprained ankle or a broken leg can limit a person's ability to evacuate quickly and safely. Heart disease, emphysema, asthma or pregnancy can reduce stamina to the point of needing assistance when moving down many flights of stairs.

One major challenge is the identification of those individuals who may need special assistance. Consider people with emphysema, asthma and other respiratory conditions who may perform well in a drill but then experience problems in an actual emergency situation. This was learned in the World Trade Center evacuation as a result of the February 1993 bombing. People with respiratory conditions described the terror they experienced with the extreme exertion required to escape down many flights of stairs in unfamiliar and smoke-filled stair towers. They also explained that prior to that emergency evacuation they had never considered themselves as having a disability that would qualify them for inclusion in special assistance emergency evacuation plans.

How to proceed

Someone will always need special assistance in the event of a fire or other emergency requiring evacuation. Identifying these individuals is essential, but it's also important to realize that some of these people may not recognize their own needs for assistance. Allowances for visitors present in the building must also be made.

Once identified, individuals should be consulted about their specific limitations and how assistance can best be provided. Finally, assisting devices and methods for accommodation should be selected and discussed. This is necessary to assure a safe "emergency" evacuation from the building for the individual with a disability.

Discussion with the individual

Keep in mind that someone with a permanent or major impairment generally knows the best way to be assisted. A minute or so spent talking with the individual will provide crucial information. People providing assistance should be trained on how to help without causing injury to themselves or others. This is especially relevant if someone needs to be lifted or carried.

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