Evacuation of People with Disabilities

This is a fantastic article submitted by one of our readers, Grant McCosh on evacuating people with disabilities.


Mobility Impairments
Since elevators should not be used for evacuation during a fire alarm, people with mobility impairments will need assistance evacuating the building unless on the ground floor. As people with mobility impairments have varying degrees of limitation, information is offered for the two possible scenarios.

1. People who are Non-Ambulatory
Evacuation of non-ambulatory people is complex. As soon as an alarm sounds, people using wheelchairs should proceed to an enclosed stairwell if possible until emergency personnel arrive and determine the necessity of evacuation. A Break Thru representative should be designated by the Fire Warden to inform emergency personnel of the person’s location. Whenever possible, someone should remain with the person with a disability.

To reduce the risk of injury, attempts to carry mobility-impaired people are discouraged and should not be attempted by anyone other than trained emergency personnel, except in the most extreme emergency. Again, in the case of a false alarm or a small isolated fire, it may not be necessary to risk a complicated evacuation, but only qualified emergency personnel should make that decision.

2. People who are Ambulatory
People with mobility limitations who are ambulatory may be able to negotiate stairs in an emergency situation with minor assistance. Some people who usually use a wheelchair or motorized scooter for long-distance travel may be able to walk independently in an emergency situation. If danger is eminent and the person is unable to walk down the stairs with some assistance, it is advisable that he or she wait until the heavy traffic has cleared before attempting to evacuate. Someone should walk beside the person to provide assistance. If it is apparent that there is no immediate danger (absence of smoke or fire), the person may choose to stay in the building until emergence personnel arrive and determine the necessity to evacuate.

The refuge can be used as a safe resting place or as a place to wait until it is safe to exit the building.

When employees or clients with a disability are unable to use stairways without assistance it will be necessary to identify refuge areas. Refuge areas provide a place of relative safety before being assisted to a final exit.

Refuge areas can be an enclosure such as a compartment, lobby, corridor or stairway that can provide protection from fire and smoke.

Keep in mind that someone with a permanent or major impairment generally knows the best way to be assisted. A minute or so spent talking with the individual will give you crucial information.

People with Visual Impairments
Most people with visual impairments will be familiar with their immediate surroundings. In an emergency, tell the person with a visual impairment the nature of the emergency and offer to guide them to the nearest emergency exit. Have the person take your elbow and escort them out of the building. As you walk, tell the person where you are and advise of any obstacles. When you reach safety, orient the person to where they are and ask if any further assistance is needed.

People with Hearing Impairments
Some people with hearing impairments may not perceive emergency alarms and will need to be alerted to the situation. Emergency instructions can be given by gesturing or by a short explicit note. It is appropriate to offer assistance to a hearing-impaired person as you leave the building.

People with Learning Disabilities
Persons with learning disabilities may have difficulty in recognizing or being motivated to act in an emergency. They may also:

  • have difficulty in responding to instructions which involve more than a small number of simple actions
  • confused visual perception of written instructions or signs
  • limited sense of direction (requiring someone to accompany them)
  • need information to be broken down into simple steps. Be patient.

Evacuation Procedure for a Person with a Disability

  • On activation of the emergency alarm, stop and collect belongings that may be required in the evacuation
  • Remain at your work station if you require assistance
  • Once your assistance arrives (or you don’t require assistance) make your way to a designated refuge point
  • Remain at you refuge point with your assistant until it is safe to evacuate (where possible use communication at the refuge point to ascertain if an evacuation is required or if it’s a false alarm
  • Once the area is clear if required with the support of your assistant make your way to the final exit of the building

Once outside the building you or your assistant must report your presence to the person in charge of the evacuation

Carrying Techniques for Non-Motorized Wheelchairs
These techniques only to be used in extreme emergencies where there is real threat to life.

One person carry technique:
The cradle lift is the preferred method when the person to be carried has no arm strength. The technique involved placing one hand under the knees of the sitting individual and the other behind the small of their back and lifting with your knees.

One-person assist:

  • Grasp the pushing grips, if available.
  • Stand one step above and behind the wheelchair.
  • Tilt the wheelchair backward until a balance (fulcrum) is achieved.
  • Keep your center of gravity low.
  • Descend frontward.
  • Let the back wheels gradually lower to the next step.

Two person carry techniques:

  • The swing or chair carry
  • Carriers stand on opposite sides of the individual.
  • Take the arm on your side and wrap it around your shoulder.
  • Grasp your carry partner’s forearm behind the person in the small of the back.
  • Reach under the person’s knees to grasp the wrist of your carry partners other hand.
  • Both carry partners should then lean in, close to the person, and lift on the count of three.
  • Continue pressing into the person being carried for additional support in the carry.

Two-person assist:

  • Positioning of second rescuer:
  • Stand in front of the wheelchair.
  • Face the wheelchair.
  • Stand one, two, or three steps down (depending on the height of the other rescuer).
  • Grasp the frame of the wheelchair.
  • Push into the wheelchair.
  • Descend the stairs backward.

Motorized Wheelchairs:

  • Motorized wheelchairs may weigh up to 100 pounds unoccupied, and may be longer than manual wheelchairs. Lifting a motorized wheelchair and user up or down stairs requires two to four people.
  • People in motorized wheelchairs probably know their equipment much better than you do! Before lifting, ask about heavy chair parts that can be temporarily detached, how you should position yourselves, where you should grab hold, and what, if any, angle to tip the chair backward.
  • Turn the wheelchairs power off before lifting it.

Most people who use motorized wheelchairs have limited arm and hand motion. Ask if they have any special requirements for being transported down the stairs.

If you have a comment or an experience please feel free to share it with us.


Grant  McCosh
Transition Consultant
Mobile: 0403 180 106
Tel: (02) 8778 6000
Fax: (02) 8778 6006
Level 2
15 Moore St
Liverpool NSW 2170


About the Author

Safety Concepts is an online resource providing up to date insights and covering issues in the field of Workplace Safety.

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