Is Evacuation Equal Opportunity in High-Rise, Residential Buildings?
Posted: 30th June 2022
Researcher and Content Writer
After the five-year anniversary of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Fire Industry can take stock of improvements to increase fire safety in high-rise residential buildings However, the feeling of positivity is not mutual for the disabled residents of tower blocks.
Despite all Grenfell Tower survivors now being safely rehoused, thousands of disabled people across the UK still live in high-rise buildings similar to Grenfell, without proper evacuation support.
So, are disabled people treated differently when considering emergency evacuation?
The most common method of supporting disabled or impaired residents is the creation of a PEEP or Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan.
A PEEP is a plan for a person who may need assistance, for instance, a person with impaired mobility, to evacuate a building or reach a place of safety in the event of an emergency.
In the most simplistic terms, a PEEP outlines how to give someone emergency help if they need to evacuate. This could be anything from guiding someone by the arm, giving verbal support and guidance, or pushing them downstairs in an evacuation chair. PEEPs apply to individuals with a permanent, temporary, or situational impairment.
While the number of individuals with permanent impairments may be proportionally lower than the non-disabled population, PEEPs are an effective solution for temporary or situational impairments which may apply to many non-disabled residents across their residency. As such, their usefulness should not be overlooked.
Permanent impairments are generally impairments or disabilities that are unlikely to get better or be recovered from over time, including
· Sensory disabilities, including blindness or deafness.
· Intellectual disabilities, including Autism or Down syndrome.
· Physical disabilities, including using a wheelchair due to MS or cerebral palsy.
· Psychosocial disabilities, including schizophrenia or PTSD.
Temporary impairments can cover a wide range of situations, but are always expected to be non-permanent, for example,
· Broken limbs
· Hand injuries
· Short-term impairments following surgery.
Situational impairments only relate to a particular situation or environment and include things such as,
· Over- bright environments
· Spaces with excessive noise pollution
· Carrying too large or too heavy loads
· Not speaking the native language or having a very thick accent.
Whatever the duration of the impairment, according to The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, it is the responsibility of the employer or business owner to create a PEEP for any who may need it in a non-domestic setting, or in residential settings such as care homes or assisted living facilities.
There are currently unclear legal obligations when considering privately rented, or privately owned properties within tower clocks or high-rise towers, which has left many impaired residents in the position of never having a PEEP in place. The danger of which was highlighted clearly during the Grenfell Tower disaster.
The fire led to 72 people losing their lives, including 15 of Grenfell’s 37 disabled residents, on the night of 14 June 2017. As a result of these deaths, the Phase One Inquiry report outlined recommendations of how each high-rise residential building owner or manager should be ‘required by law to prepare PEEPs for all residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.’ Similarly, each owner/ manager should ‘be required by law to include up-to-date information about persons with reduced mobility and their associated PEEPs in the premises information box.’
However, despite over 40% of the deaths during the Grenfell Tower disaster of disabled residents, the Home Office have rejected recommendations to implement PEEPs, on the grounds of ‘” practicality” “proportionality” and “safety.”’
The Home Office explains its findings in a consultation document entitled the ‘EEIS Consultation,’ published 18th May 2022. They find that;
- the cost of implementing PEEPs through the wages of “staffing up” the buildings is too high when the impact they would have would be limited.
- The number of disabled people that reside in accommodations like Grenfell Tower is on average only around 11 individuals per building.
- It is deemed unsafe for untrained people to help those with impairments to evacuate.
- The impaired or disabled individuals could ‘potentially not only block what could be the sole exit, but it could also hamper Fire & Rescue Service firefighting and rescue operations…’ if they were helped to evacuate.
As a result of their findings, the Home Office suggest disabled or impaired residents continue to follow the Stay Put advice until advised by the fire brigade on scene, who will then coordinate an evacuation with an awareness of the needs of these individuals who reside in the building.
This increased awareness will come from the Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing (EEIS) plan, which is to be kept on site in case of further disasters. These EEIS plans are currently expected to come into force in late 2022/ early 2023, depending on the rollout.
As you will expect, this is not a decision that has been well received.
From survivors of Grenfell to disabled rights groups and industry leaders from across the Fire Industry, individuals have begun to raise their concerns about the continued non-application of PEEPs.
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said the Home Office’s decision to reject the recommendation from the first phase of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry was a “negative, backward step” and would put disabled people’s safety at risk.
Professor Ed Galea, director of the Fire Safety Engineering Group at the University of Greenwich, argues that the application of PEEPs is frequently hindered by fearmongering and falls victim to one-sided beliefs about them that are accepted ‘without pursuing, exploring or even entertaining informed counter-argument.’
Professor Galea also suggests this may be the reason that PEEPs were rejected, despite the overwhelming support, of around 83%, during the public consultation. ‘If the Grenfell Tower Inquiry proposals are implemented in full, essentially all high-rise residential buildings will have three layers of safety: Plan A (stay put), Plan B (evacuation, including PEEPs) and Plan C (‘emergency evacuation’ by the fire and rescue service).’
Despite growing concern over the safety of the Stay Put policy, and the events of 14th June 2017, advice for able-bodied and impaired/ disabled inhabitants of high-rise buildings looks set to remain the same, with Stay Put advice remaining, unless specifically advised at the time of the incident by the emergency services.
However, instead of implementing PEEPs and adding a further level of safety for the most vulnerable of building users, under EEIS plans attention for impaired residents focusses on the use of equipment such as extra handrails, increased signage, alternative fire alarms for the hard of hearing and in-flat accessories such as ‘fire-retardant blankets, smoke alarms, flame retardant bedding and/or fire safe ashtrays.’
A fact that has left some ex-Grenfell residents, such as Sarah Rennie and Georgie Hulme inciting official judicial reviews to encourage the Home Office to change its policy, after viewing the decision as an act of discrimination. “An evacuation plan is not a big ask and the fact that the Home Office is blocking this is an outrageous act of discrimination. How many disabled deaths would be an acceptable amount for the Home Office to consider proportionate to warrant action?”
While the issue of high-risk building safety and cladding removal continues into its 6th year, around 14.6 million permanently disabled adults across the UK once again find themselves at the bottom of the priority list when it comes to fire safety.
An estimated ‘9,793 tower blocks in England’ still feature dangerous cladding, and by failing to implement all Phase One recommendations, residents who are ‘” unable to self-evacuate are forced to live every day knowing that they cannot access a safe means of escape.”’
These residents instead are expected to huddle beneath flame retardant blankets and simply wait for help to come to them, while their able-bodied neighbours can simply leave as soon as the building is deemed untenable.
We can only hope that the continued petitioning and public outcry against these decisions can inspire a second look into the implementation of all Phase One recommendations.
Not only would this safeguard the independence of disabled and impaired residents, but it would free up firefighters, save precious time during a fire situation, and ensure new higher standards of fire safety for all.
More importantly, however, it would ensure that all residents who live in high-rise accommodation have safe evacuation options.
Researcher and Content Writer
Jessica is a Researcher and Content Writer for Adexon, who are a Fire and Smoke Curtain company who are challenging industry standards and innovating products that outperform them.
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