As responsibility for ensuring everyone's safety shifts away from prescriptive approaches, Elspeth Grant looks at a new order with more emphasis on assessment and prevention
16 June 2006
Consolidating over 100 separate pieces of fire safety legislation, the new Regulatory Reform Order 2006 (RRO) will apply to all non-domestic premises. And the responsibility for ensuring the safety of everyone in commercial and public buildings is shifting away from the former prescriptive approach towards risk assessment, fire prevention and fire protection.
Although it is fair to say that there is considerable nervousness regarding these changes, it will undoubtedly simplify the task of building managers who often have to comply with different overlapping fire legislation and focus upon what really matters.
Whereas the current fire legislation concerned only the safety of employees, the RRO makes employers responsible for everyone inside and outside their site, including those in close vicinity of the premises. This has considerable ramifications for those in high-density public places.
All too often the effective egress of disabled people is neglected or given mere lip service. Able-bodied people would not accept being located on a high floor of a building accessed only by lift which is not fire-protected and with no alternative means of escape. Yet disabled people are regularly asked to enter buildings with no effective means of escape for them in the event of fire.
A trip to a major shopping mall will highlight the issues - many now offer shopmobility trucks for disabled and elderly people but it is rare to enter a shopping mall with effective fire exit signs directing shopmobility clients to suitable fire exits. Many such fire escapes exit onto stairs, so imagine the affect in the event of an evacuation of escape routes clogged with motorised wheelchairs.
Even where refuges and fire signage are present there are often no effective procedures to evacuate disabled people clear of the building. With criminal penalties for non-compliance, the RRO aims to trigger employers, building managers and the designated 'responsible person' to focus more on the evacuation of all now that the 'security blanket' of fire certificates has been removed.
Even under current fire legislation it is not the fire and rescue service's responsibility to bring disabled people from burning buildings. In practice how many people would abandon their disabled colleagues to await the arrival of the fire engine which may take up to 15 minutes while they were safely out in the car park? The danger remains that, in the absence of evacuation chairs, training and information, well-intentioned people will cause physical harm to disabled people by trying to remove them from the building.
The RRO requires all employers and building controllers to undertake a risk assessment and to document an action plan for all users. The first step of a detailed risk assessment of emergency egress is to analyse whether disabled people are likely to be in the vicinity. If the building is not open to the public, then the employers should circulate an emergency egress questionnaire to all staff.
Remember, it would be discriminatory to issue them only to people with a perceived disability. The questionnaire should be detailed and should collate information for those requiring assistance for the whole range of disabilities - eg, mobility, hearing, sight, learning difficulties.
Many of these disabilities are not immediately obvious to colleagues but may well impact on the persons ability to escape the building and of equal importance, someone with a disability may well slow the overall evacuation of others if their needs are not catered for. Results from the collated questionnaires can then be fed into the overall risk assessment and resulting action plan with personal emergency evacuation plans (Peeps) being developed for each individual with a disability. Where a building is open to the public, then an overall assessment needs to be made regarding the usage by disabled people.
An effective means of escape strategy for disabled people should include a combination of physical fire protection measures (such as refuges and ramps) together with clear management procedures provides for a flexible approach. When defining evacuation procedures, it should be remembered that specific measures are required for different disabilities:
Wheelchair users and those with mobility difficulties - clearly defined refuge areas
Impaired vision - clarity of environment, familiarisation, assistance
Impaired hearing - clear signage, auxiliary aids (eg, vibrating pagers)
Learning difficulties - clear signage,
Part M of the Building Regulations requires building designs to include refuges, but once installed these often remain with no signage and with no procedures backing-up their use. BS5588 Part 8 states: "Refuges are relatively safe for short periods. They are not areas where disabled people should be left indefinitely until rescued by the fire brigade, or until the fire is extinguished."
Even prior to the RRO becoming law on
1 October, it is the responsibility of the employer and building manager to effect the evacuation of everyone from the building. It is also frequently the case that refuge areas which are required to provide a 30-minute fire protection are often compromised by alterations to roof spaces during IT or electrical installations.
Accessibility to buildings for people with disabilities is steadily improving and all employers and buildings managers should remember that they have a duty of care under fire legislation to effect the safe evacuation of everyone, not just the able bodied. It would be discriminatory to deny a disabled person access to a building just because there are no defined escape options. There is a major responsibility on employers and buildings managers to ensure that they can be safely evacuated should the need arise.
Elspeth Grant is director of AAA Consult