Fire safety legislation requires overhaul to protect mobility impaired and preserve life

A complete overhaul of legislation is urgently needed to guarantee legal protection for disabled and mobility impaired individuals, with greater clarity and accountability aimed at the ‘responsible person’ for fire safety measures and risk assessment – writes Ges Wallace, Managing Director of Evac+Chair International.

A culture of fire safety non-compliance in businesses must be urgently addressed by a dual approach – both by improving clarity in closing the legislative gap and creating better awareness of responsibilities.

As it stands, the law currently leaves mobility impaired individuals unaccounted for in evacuation planning across both residential and commercial buildings.

Evacuation policies often implement a ‘stay put’ policy, leaving those with mobility impairments stuck on a stairwell or near to an evacuation route. In these cases, it is only when the emergency services arrive on the scene that disabled people can be evacuated to safety, making evacuation much longer at a time when speed is of the utmost importance.

This inadequate policymaking puts more lives at risk. Rather, the law should explicitly state that the onus is on businesses or building owners to involve safe methods of exit in both emergency and organisational planning, avoiding the need for emergency services’ intervention in evacuation of disabled people except for in exceptional circumstances.

Many businesses are also ill-informed about their responsibilities to provide ways and means for temporarily mobility impaired people to exit a building during an evacuation.

A well-rehearsed plan, which considers everyone, including the disabled and mobility impaired, has the power to save lives.

The current state of the law

At present, building owners are responsible for conducting fire safety risk assessments of their buildings under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. However, this does not go far enough to detail more on how businesses should provide these means for the mobility impaired to be evacuated.

This is echoed by all fire safety audits conducted in 2019/20, where only 66 per cent of all buildings were deemed satisfactory. [01]

And, high profile tragedies such as Grenfell should be a stark wake up call for businesses and building owners to become more aware of their responsibilities. But sadly, this is not the case.

There are 14.1million disabled people in the UK, with 4.4 million disabled people in our workplaces. Absent from the figures are those who are with temporary injuries or conditions, adding an invisible population to the list of those failed by current regulations.

In order to be evacuated safely in an emergency, disabled people and those with temporary disabilities require Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans (PEEPS), a set of additional measures and/or equipment for a swift and safe evacuation from buildings. This was specified in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, as well as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

While PEEPs are a legal requirement, it does not provide any implication against the use of a ‘stay put’ policy, which places full reliance on evacuation by the fire service. Rather, the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 should act as a single point of reference on the issue, providing explanation of the evacuation equipment required and make explicit the responsibilities of businesses and building owners to put the right procedures in place for evacuation or emergency.

After all, under the law, building owners are responsible and could be fined and in a worst-case scenario, face a charge of corporate manslaughter. This legal structure should also support them to meet this requirement.

With the Grenfell verdict incoming, a further case in point was the trial of George Boden, company director at Wood Treatment Ltd (WTL). Risk assessments and fire safety measures were in place – but they did not go far enough to protect the lives of staff members. Boden pleaded guilty to being the director of a company which committed an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

A need for something new

Policies of phased evacuation are not to blame for the failures in fire evacuation legislation, but the lack of incentive or legal blowback for the ‘responsible person’ to implement them is, and it is also this issue which needs urgent addressing.

With the correct equipment and procedures in buildings, evacuation speeds would increase twofold and this would also prevent scenarios where individuals are left behind in emergencies.

Even in cases where the fire service would still be required to evacuate those who’ve had to ‘stay put’, equipment, such as evacuation chairs, could greatly increase speed and safety of evacuation.

The Local Government Association has greyed out its policy on PEEPs, with a new policy under review, since April 2020. This delay is putting more lives at risk alongside the potential for open interpretation of the law.

In addition, there has always been an emphasis on giving disabled people access into buildings, but little thought and planning is paid on how best to support people to evacuate
in an emergency.

We also see a lack of awareness among building owners and managers around their responsibilities for people with temporary disabilities or impairments – such as a broken leg or even pregnancy. In addition to this, there should be proper measures in place to account for any visitor with a mobility impairment attending a site.

Procedures and policies must be rethought to become more inclusive, ensuring everyone, whether able-bodied or not, can escape from a building in an emergency situation.

The blame game resulting from Grenfell

The Grenfell Tower tragedy, the greatest loss of life from a fire since the Second World War, and its subsequent four-year long enquiry, has propelled this issue into the public eye – exposing the grievous state of this nation’s fire safety legislation.

It is evident that the ‘stay put’ scenario can result in tragic consequences, with emergency response being too little, too late.While it potentially alleviates residential and commercial building owners from implementing additional measures for a safe evacuation, there remains a pertinent question of who should be responsible for failing to evacuate those with mobility impairment from a fire.

In the case of Grenfell, the Fire Brigades Union later stated that there was an ‘unjustified reliance’ on firefighters to evacuate buildings.

For effective change, these measures need to be implemented at a local level. The phase one report of the Grenfell enquiry has recommended that the owner and manager of every residential high rise building should be legally required to prepare PEEPs for all residents whose ability to self-evacuate may be compromised.

In the aftermath of Grenfell, the Government introduced the new Waking Watch system – an early fire detection system. However, at present, the scheme is only accessible to 5,300 disabled individuals. Whilst this goes some way to protecting individuals in their own homes, this does not protect the same individuals in every environment, something which Evac+Chair is passionate about changing.

Moving towards change

It is vital businesses know their responsibilities and people with disabilities, whether lifelong or temporary, also know their rights when it comes to getting out of a building in an emergency situation.

As highlighted, there is great confusion between business owners and building managers’ responsibilities for fire safety and what needs to be in place to properly protect staff, visitors and the public. There is also a knowledge gap around how to include those with temporary disabilities and impairments in planning.

However, the fact remains that in a worst-case scenario, business and building owners would be deemed responsible and could be fined or charged with corporate manslaughter in some circumstances.

Evac+Chair is not challenging policies concerning ‘phased evacuation’ or the ‘stay put’ policy itself, however, these do not necessarily result in the correct equipment and training being put in place. Rather, businesses and buildings must adopt a tailored approach to ensure the safe and speedy evacuation of everybody, including the mobility impaired.

The International Fire Standards has launched its Global Plan for Fire Safety 2022-2023 – a United Nations-endorsed initiative aiming to improve measures across infrastructures, communities and legal structures in the UK and globally.

Yet, more proactive action is needed within our government to implement these legislative changes at a UK level and ensure we achieve the ‘Decade of Action’ set out in the global plan.

Even then, we cannot solely rely on the efforts of the international fire safety coalition – our Government should be taking a far more proactive role in reviewing current fire safety measures, procedures, practices and its grey areas. Without legislation and confusion reigning over responsibilities, this will continue to leave disabled and temporarily disabled people at risk of being left behind when it matters most.

Against the backdrop of the Grenfell tragedy, it is time for us all to be working together, creating change and making sure people, disabled or temporarily mobility impaired, are kept safe in our buildings.

[01] – Home Office – Fire prevention & protection statistics, England, April 2019 to March 2020

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