Fire safety and evacuation: Step by step
Aaron David Carter looks at the legal requirements, good practice and pitfalls to avoid when procuring and using evacuation chairs.
Evacuation chairs are often walked past in corridors with their dusty fireproof covers hanging over them, having never seen the light of day since they were installed. These chairs are critical in the evacuation of those with mobility issues. This means that they need to be managed properly and included in the building fire management plan.
To evacuate most occupants from a premises, a building emergency evacuation plan will highlight the procedures and escape routes, including stairs, for them to leave in a timely manner. People with restricted mobility must have their escape facilitated and you must draw up a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP) for those who are regular users of your premises. A generic plan is adequate to cover occasional visitors.
Evacuation chairs are designed to descend stairs and provide rapid egress where there are no lifts or they are out of use.
The government guidance Means of Escape for Disabled People (bit.ly/2hfRLQG) is aligned with the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 (FSO). It covers the use of evacuation chairs, carrying people down in their wheelchairs or office chairs. Naturally, eliminating manual handling injuries to operatives and the evacuees are key drivers when seeking building evacuation solutions for those with limited mobility.
Restrictions to mobility may be caused by a variety of temporary and permanent factors. As well as people with permanent disabilities, people might require an evacuation chair to vacate a building if they are injured (such as broken legs), pregnant, intoxicated, arthritic, epileptic, very young or elderly or who have had a suspected stroke or heart attack.
The right chair
There are many evacuation chairs on the market. Manual chairs have wheels and a track or blade that moves over the stairs, smoothing the descent. Electrical evacuation chairs rely on one or two tracks and are commonly designed to carry a wheelchair locked on to a platform.
A key consideration is the weight range of the people who will be carried in a chair. The standard non-powered chairs range between 160 kg and 180 kg. If the people you will be evacuating are likely to be substantially heavier, there are specialist chairs. The width and depth of stairs/staircases can make some of the models unsuitable because their tracks will not reach between steps.
Make sure they know how to move off correctly and prevent “bunny hopping”
If a person with limited mobility has an underlying health condition or disability, then the seat width and placement of bars and straps on a standard chair can cause discomfort and even injury.
If the person has a complex health or disability issue or multiple disabilities, it is also important to take those conditions into account and the impact of getting in and out of the evacuation chair and descending in the chair. There have been cases where evacuation via an inappropriate chair has resulted in over seven-day absences from work, reportable in the UK as an injury under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations.
Sometimes, on the advice of the user’s doctor and the company occupational health service, you may have to find bespoke equipment.
In the UK, if your evacuation chair comes from outside the European Union it must have the CE/TUV markings so that it satisfies s 6 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Manual and electrically operated evacuation chairs are deemed as class I medical devices and hence are covered by the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998. Electric super track stair climbers are also covered by the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998, which require a wheelchair to be fitted to the stair climber to aid evacuation.
It is easy to overlook the comfort and dignity of people who need help with evacuation. In writing a PEEP it is important to take the wishes of the individual into account. They may be reluctant to use an evacuation chair; therefore their consent is essential. They may wish to have an alternative solution such as being based on the ground floor, where possible.
Consideration must also be given to the evacuee once they get to the muster point after evacuation. They may, depending on their condition, require crutches or a wheelchair to ensure their comfort and ability to move about, and to give their legs circulation.
If you do not own your premises, you will need the landlord’s permission to fix the evacuation chair to the wall. You may wish to have the maintenance of the chair included in their annual planned preventive maintenance programme. Electric platform chairs that hold wheelchairs require a significant storage area and wide staircases. Again, consulting the landlord is key.
Chair servicing should be carried out regularly by a competent person who will cover all aspects and often will grade their condition in three categories: good, average or poor. Servicing should cover:
frame, welds, bolts
seat belt, headrest, upholstery
track guides and tracks
wheels, bearings, circlips, brakes.
Good practice is to put a safety/service label on the evacuation chair confirming the date of the service, lubricate the wheels as required, clean and photograph the chair. Finally, the evacuation chair must be tested on the stairs – and rated pass or fail. If you have to order replacement parts or a new chair, remember to adapt your fire evacuation plan while the chair is out of commission. The ability of the operative to move and operate the chair in confined stairwells, slippy surfaces and metal stairs are all environmental issues that can hamper the use of an evacuation chair.
Training and cover
Operatives using chairs have to be able to set them up – some models can be complex, with up to eight steps. Make sure they know the chair’s balance point, correct posture in using it, how to check the occupant is comfortable and secure, how to position the chair on the stairs and move off correctly and prevent “bunny hopping” (uneven descent).
There is no law covering certification of competence for your evacuation chair operatives. Relying on brief initial training from the manufacturer or simply watching their product promotional video just to tick the box for training is inadequate.
To help people in and out of chairs, operators should be trained not only in basic manual handling but also in handling people. Handling training certification must be renewed every three years to stay valid.
Best practice is to have initial formal training of around 3.5 hours with a qualified trainer and then regular practice runs of around one hour every 12 weeks – this is confirmed in the Means of Escape for Disabled People guidance. Training is best carried out in groups of no more than six people.
The 3.5-hour training sessions may vary depending on the trainer and the model being used but should cover evacuation chair familiarisation, manual handling issues, chair use, transferring an evacuee to a chair and a practical assessment.
Although the evacuation chairs can be operated by a single person, teams of two will permit rests (operatives will suffer from fatigue especially if covering a long descent); one operator can go ahead of the chair giving the evacuee reassurance during the descent.
Evacuation chair operatives may be reluctant volunteers; to retain them some companies make recognition payments in cash or vouchers. You need enough trained operatives to ensure sufficient cover in the early mornings, late evenings, shifts, lunchtimes and other breaks.
The key thing to remember with evacuation chairs is not to leave them forgotten under their covers collecting dust. They must be serviced and staff trained to use them.
Aaron David Carter, estates manager, Crown Commercial Service