Though concerns remain, new attitudes are helping people with disabilities evacuate high-rise buildings more safely
By Scott Baltic
As they were evacuating with their co-workers from a telecommunications company at the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, Michael Benfante and John Cerqueira met a woman in a wheelchair on the 68th floor. Knowing she'd never make it out on her own, the men helped her into an evacuation chair and took turns carrying her down the stairs. Their trek ended on the ground floor more than an hour later—and only a few minutes before the tower collapsed.
The safety of people with disabilities in commercial occupancies, particularly high-rises, isn't a new issue. However, this story and others like it underscore the fact that people with disabilities need not be considered—or consider themselves—expendable when it comes to evacuating a building during an emergency.
Cyndi Jones, director of The Center for an Accessible Society in San Diego, California, knows that feeling all too well. She recalls an experience she and her husband often have when flying. After the pre-takeoff safety briefing, a flight attendant approaches Jones and her husband, both of whom have mobility impairments, and explains that, in case of an emergency, they'll be evacuated once everyone else is off the plane. Jones and her husband exchange glances that say, "Yeah, right."
Most people with disabilities have similar experiences, says Jones, and they've bred a certain fatalism. The prevailing attitude among people with disabilities, she says, is, "If I'm on the 50th floor, I'm a goner. No one's going to be able to help me."
"People with disabilities get used to thinking that way because that's the way people talk to us," Jones continues. But experiences at the WTC disaster show that, in any kind of survival situation, a positive mindset and a plan can make a difference.
Creating a plan
There's no such thing as a "typical" or "model" evacuation plan for people with disabilities. According to June Isaacson Kailes, a Los Angeles, California–based disability policy consultant, "boilerplate plans are worthless, as they don't take into account the unique circumstances of each facility and each person.
"Make sure your site isn't using a boilerplate disaster plan. Each building and sometimes building area (in large buildings) is unique and should have its own plan. It's important to treat all people with disabilities as individuals. Don't lump all people with disabilities into one category," says Kailes. "For example, there are some emergency plans where all people with disabilities are directed to go to the area of rescue assistance to await members of the emergency team to escort them to safety. As a general rule, there's no reason that individuals with hearing or vision loss can't use the stairs to make an independent escape, as long as they're effectively notified of the need to evacuate and can find the stairway."
The technical assistance coordinator for the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, Marsha Mazz, agrees.
"There are no cookbook answers, because everyone is different. Most people understand themselves well enough to articulate their needs and preferences if they're asked. The problem is that people, including those with disabilities, are rarely asked," she says.
New help with planning
Planning is an essential part of any fire protection program, and doubly so for people with disabilities and their employers. Fortunately, two new national programs were developed to help with this planning as a result of the September 11 attacks.
Last fall, the National Organization on Disability (NOD) conceived its Emergency Preparedness Initiative and wrote to every U.S. governor and mayor to let them know about it, says Elizabeth Davis, the new program's director.
One of the initiative's themes, she explains, is to make sure that emergency planning at least takes individuals with disabilities into account, or, better yet, involves them. In other words, says Davis, don't plan for people with disabilities, plan with them.
"Who better to plan around those issues than the individual?" she asks.
"A boilerplate plan, if anything, can only point to issues that need to be addressed, but the rest depends on facility, staff, and resources. Thus, a plan is only worthwhile if it is customized to the location, population, and safety resources," she says.
NOD's goal for this program is to be a "matchmaker," functioning as a repository of, and conduit for, information. Accordingly, the organization has started to collect best practices in emergency egress for people with disabilities, which it will highlight on its Web site.
The group is also planning two booklets, one profiling emergency response agencies that have been proactive in this area, and the second aimed at individuals with disabilities.
More recently, Easter Seals began to pilot a nationwide program intended to make planning tools and resources available to those with disabilities, emergency services agencies, employers, and building owners and managers. Called "SAFETY First," the program was launched in April in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Manchester, New Hampshire.
Fire Chief Louis Dezelan of the Indianapolis Fire Department explains that the program originated with Greg Fehribach, an attorney and member of the Easter Seals board, who wondered, post 9-11, what the fire service was doing about evacuating individuals with disabilities from high-rises.
Dezelan anticipates that even in the wake of September 11, there will be worries about the costs and difficulties of a program such as this, much as there were when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990. He predicts, however, that these concerns will subside quickly.
"People are going to learn, just as they did with ADA, that making accommodations isn't that difficult," he says.
Who has a disability?
Planning for the emergency egress of people with disabilities must start with awareness. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 1 in 5 Americans has some kind of disability, a figure that may seem implausibly high until you stop to consider the many definitions of "disability."
Though the able-bodied tend immediately to think of wheelchairs, there's much more to disability, says Allan Fraser, NFPA senior building code specialist.
"We have to distinguish that there are multiple classes of disabilities," he says. "There are about as many variations as there are people."
NOD's Davis refers to a "spectrum of disability" that comprises temporary, episodic, and chronic disabilities. The temporary category is familiar to anyone who's ever suffered a sports injury or has been pregnant.
Episodic disabilities include severe allergies or situational disabilities, such as asthma. Situational disabilities may also refer to an environment in which an otherwise able-bodied person might find himself or herself, such as a high-rise building.
Kailes notes that a significant proportion of the population can't walk down many flights of steps.
Codes and guidelines
Though many see the ADA as what put the rights of those with disabilities on the map, this regulatory process actually began more than a generation ago. In 1947, President Truman established the President's Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped to help veterans with disabilities move into the workforce. One of the committee's indirect accomplishments was the creation of American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A117.1, Standard on Accessible and Useable Buildings and Facilities.
The passage of the ADA was followed by the publication of the ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG), written by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, an agency that had been around since 1973.
Although it covers areas typically addressed by consensus standards and codes, ADA isn't a code. Nor is it written like one. The fact that the guidelines weren't originally written in code language led to difficulties with interpretation, says architect and codes consultant Larry Perry.
The reason ADA wasn't written like a code was because it was born out of the legislative process, not the consensus standards-creation process, explains Brian Black, director of codes and standards for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association in Jackson Heights, New York. ADA originally didn't even include provisions for emergency egress, notes Black, though the ADAAG did. As a result, says Perry, "the building codes very quickly became the default practice."
In the late 1980s, model codes, including NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code® began addressing accessible egress.
Fortunately, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board is developing a new set of guidelines that was released in final draft form for public comment in early April, says Black.
Like others in this field, Charles Harper, chairman of the American Institute of Architects' National Disaster Response Committee, looks forward to being able to use elevators to help people with disabilities evacuate commercial occupancies.
"That's really the only way" to get large numbers of people out of a high-rise quickly, he says.
All major codes have provisions for accessible elevators, explains Richard Bukowski, senior engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Building and Fire Research Laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland. If a building has four or more floors and the fourth and any higher floors are accessible to those with disabilities, there must be an accessible elevator. These types of elevators comprise a vital aspect of accessible means of egress.
NFPA 101 and NFPA 5000, Building Code™ both have provisions for egress elevators, says Bukowski, though currently these provisions only apply to air traffic control towers, which have special evacuation needs. Although NIST has conducted research into egress elevators for about 10 years, he says, no such elevators are currently manufactured, for several reasons.
"Interior elevator systems don't like water," Bukowski notes, and some firefighters have had close calls or been badly injured when elevator-shaft doors opened onto an empty shaft or when the elevator brakes failed.
Further, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers A 17.1, Safety Code for Elevators and Escalators, requires that an elevator's power be cut automatically and immediately if water is sensed nearby.
"The elevators are all dead, even if they're between floors," says Bukowski.
The solution to the elevator problem would seem to be simply to use exterior-type elevators, which are waterproof, but the elevator industry has been reluctant to use such elevators indoors because they're harder to inspect properly, Bukowski says. He also points out that the industry is comfortable with elevators being under the control of firefighters (not civilians) during an emergency.
"What caused the problems for the industry was legal liability," he says.
Even so, notes Fraser, issues remain. For one thing, emergency power for evacuation elevators isn't foolproof, because power cables could still be affected by the heat of a fire.
In addition, he asks, "how do you balance all the rights and needs of all the occupants of a building?" How can one ensure, for example, that an elevator for people with disabilities won't be commandeered by the able-bodied?
Another hardware solution to the egress problem is evacuation chairs, devices that let helpers get wheelchair users down stairs safely. However, both Black and Mazz of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board note that there are currently no standards for the design and construction of evacuation chairs or similar devices, nor for placing them in commercial buildings.
Further, says Black, evacuation chairs vary widely in quality, and some "look like lawn chairs with wheels added."
Mazz adds that only one of the half-dozen or so chair manufacturers offers brakes.
"For my money," she says, "that seems to be a really critical feature."
"Egress is still a thorny issue" for people with disabilities, concludes Edwina Juillet, a disability consultant and former member of the Life Safety Code's Board and Care Facilities Committee. Based on her background in risk management, she believes in a lot of redundancy: sprinklers, safe areas of refuge, and evacuation chairs.
Though the hardware solutions are important, they only go so far. When an emergency hits, people need a plan and they need to know how to carry it out.
Protocols and procedures
After September 11, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which is on the top floor of a 10-story building, refreshed its evacuation plans and bought more evacuation chairs, reports Mazz.
"We were reminded by September 11 to be more diligent," she says.
"September 11 certainly heightened everyone's attention regarding evacuations from high-rises," agrees Jay Windsor, a property manager for Houston, Texas-based, Hines, one of the largest U.S. real estate developers and property managers.
Among the buildings Hines manages is a 47-story office building in Miami, Florida, with a daytime population of 1,500, about 10 of whom have disabilities.
After September 11, Windsor's staff developed a list of tenants with special needs, each of whom is assigned two "buddies" who are in the office on a regular basis. One buddy is to stay with the person and help him or her down the stairs if possible, while the other notifies building staff.
"The main thing is to get them to a safe area" until the fire department arrives to reactivate the elevators, Windsor says.
Like other advocates for people with disabilities, Kailes feels that people with disabilities must shoulder certain responsibilities themselves. The key, she says, is that "people get help best when they plan for it."
Accordingly, those with disabilities should assess their own abilities, keep any needed assistive devices and equipment nearby, know all their evacuation options, and practice their plan. In addition, they have to "master the skill of giving quick instructions," she says, by being "very clear, very assertive, very short, and to the point."
Employers, in turn, should review evacuation plans annually, and practice and evaluate them regularly. Even a brief discussion during a staff meeting, Kailes says, can help to remind everyone what he or she needs to do. Ultimately, a solid level of preparedness should become "part of the fabric of the facility."
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