IFSJ Exclusive: Evacuation – Have you got a plan for that?

Share this content


Kevin Carr, Senior Fire Protection Specialist, talks about the NFPA’s emergency evacuation guide

Recently, someone that I know was in a building that needed to be evacuated due to an emergency situation. As many of us have experienced, building evacuations are often unplanned events that require an immediate response from occupants. Even under the least stressful conditions, relocating people to a specific area within a building, or having them vacate entirely, can be an arduous process. In this particular case, the individual I mentioned has a cognitive disability, which makes processing information and responding calmly difficult for them. Thankfully, due to a previously developed emergency evacuation plan that was properly executed, both the individual, as well as his companions, were able to egress the building safely without incident.

This example underlines the critical role that emergency evacuation plans play for occupants within a given building. These plans can take many forms, and may be required by applicable building, fire, and life safety codes. I would argue that a key consideration of these documents is understanding the occupants who are likely to be present. This includes people with disabilities, as they may have specific challenges and assistance needs, some of which may not be apparent. Unless carefully considered during the plan’s development or update, these concerns could potentially be overlooked.

To assist with these endeavors, NFPA recently released the third edition of the publication, Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities (herein, the Guide). The document’s main purpose is to provide building occupants, as well as building managers in non-residential buildings, guidance on how to develop an emergency evacuation plan that is inclusive of people with disabilities. Similar to previous editions, the document was developed by the NFPA Disability Access Review and Advisory Committee (DARAC), who specialises in advising NFPA regarding disability concerns.

DARAC, along with NFPA staff, sought to reimagine the publication from previous iterations. Most pressing, the focus was to guide the reader through practical considerations to develop a plan, explaining the fundamentals of evacuation, and provide a tool to record their findings. Given this premise, the Guide was reformatted into four distinct areas listed below, with some practical questions to consider:

1. Preparing an emergency evacuation plan

It could be argued that one of the most difficult challenges with emergency evacuation planning is where to begin. This section outlines practical considerations that should be considered before, during and after the plan’s creation. For many organisations, emergency evacuation plans could be a component within a larger emergency plan, and include other aspects, such as business continuity operations, for example. Others may develop a stand-alone document that is not reliant on outside factors.

In either case, the emergency evacuation plan often originates with the creation of a planning team. This team should ideally be composed of key stakeholders, such as building management, and seek to include people with disabilities among its members, as they are able to offer specific and relevant information. The team, once constructed, should assess the building, its operation, and occupants, leading to the creation of relevant and detailed plan.

Once developed, and most critically, the plan should be practiced. This step cannot be overstated enough, as testing will reveal how occupants might respond during an actual emergency. The planning team should review any exposed deficiencies to determine the most appropriate course of action. Finally, the planning team should establish a time to review the plan and provide updates at appropriate intervals.

Are you developing a new emergency evacuation plan or revising an existing one? If so, you may wish to consider these questions to get you started:

  • Does my organisation or building have a current plan?
  • When was this plan developed?
  • When was the last time a test of the plan was performed?
  • Who is responsible for the plan?
  • How is the plan communicated to occupants?
  • Has input, specific to people with disabilities, been received for inclusion within the plan?

2. Stages of an emergency evacuation

Understanding the building, and its operation, is an essential component for the creation of an effective plan. This section reviews five stages of evacuation to help the reader ensure that each phase is considered. The phases (Notification, Exit Signs, Exit Access, Exits, and Exit Discharge) are provided with associated images to visualise these concepts for the reader.

These five components, which are steeped in aspects of NFPA codes and standards (for more information, see www.nfpa.org), are provided in simple terms so both new and experienced individuals may participate in the plan’s development. It is important to note that while the Guide is a tool, it does not take the place of local, state, federal or other legal or regulatory requirements applicable in any jurisdiction. Please contact your authority having jurisdiction (otherwise known as “AHJ”) for information regarding your specific responsibilities.

Questions to Consider:

  • How is your building arranged?
  • How does your building utilise each phase of evacuation?
  • Who can assist you with questions you may have about your building’s arrangement?

2. Checklist for emergency evacuation planning

Having a tool to collect information is essential to crafting an effective plan. This section provides a checklist for the planning team, or individuals, to document their findings. The checklist is provided in five separate parts, based on the topics covered under the Stages of Emergency Evacuation, mentioned above. This is by design, as it allows the checklist to work in tandem with the source material to assist in uncovering any gaps that might be exposed.

Questions to Consider:

  • What items on the checklist are most applicable to the building’s arrangement?
  • Does the checklist need any additional areas to be added?
  • How will the information from the checklist be used and stored?

4. Resources

As the Guide is provided as a tool only and is not intended to replace legal or regulatory requirements, the planning team may determine that additional resources are needed to assist them with specific considerations. This section provides a partial list of NFPA and other resources that have expertise in a variety of areas and topics. As mentioned previously, a key resource to consider is the AHJ, who may include, but is not limited to, a building or fire official. Please consider contacting them with specific questions or concerns, as well as guidance.

Questions to Consider:

  • What resources are essential for your emergency evacuation plan to consider?
  • What outside resources should be consulted?
  • Have any areas for training been identified? If so, how will they be addressed?

As this brief outline of the Guide demonstrates, emergency evacuation plans are vital documents that have the ability to assist all occupants, including people with disabilities, in emergency situations. It is imperative that careful thought and consideration be undertaken when developing and revising these plans to achieve the most inclusive results.

When practiced and executed effectively, these plans have shown to have a significant impact on occupants’ ability to observe safer, calmer, and orderly evacuations. I challenge you to examine your own building’s plan and ask questions about how it could be improved for the benefit of everyone.

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay inclusive.

About the author

Kevin Carr is a Senior Fire Protection Specialist at NFPA. He is the staff liaison for several technical committees, including NFPA DARAC. He may be reached at [email protected].

Any opinion expressed in this column is the personal opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the official position of NFPA or its Technical Committees. In addition, this piece is neither intended, nor should it be relied upon, to provide professional consultation or services.

This article was originally published in the January edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

Receive the latest breaking news straight to your inbox