We have an ageing population, greater levels of obesity and a growing awareness of the challenges of people with disabilities. This has the potential to increase the number of vulnerable people in health and aged care buildings who need to protected, moved or evacuated in the event of a fire or other emergencies.
In the context of this article, a vulnerable person is considered to be someone who is incapable of moving away from a fire or smoke or evacuating without some form of assistance from others. This vulnerability may be due to age (e.g. the very young or very old), a temporary disability (e.g. patients in ICU or in a surgery or recovery ward in a hospital) or due to a permanent disability of either a physical or cognitive nature. Hospitals and aged care facilities are two forms of building that have a significant proportion of such persons, although vulnerable persons may be present in other residential buildings or work places.
Assisted evacuation of vulnerable persons can be considered to consist of the following phases:
- Preparation of persons prior to movement
- communication – this is necessary to achieve the person’s cooperation
- preparation of mode of transportation if ambulatory difficulties – transportable bed, type of wheelchair, other
- implementation of any personal health care measures (e.g. oxygen, disconnecting or connecting drips)
- Horizontal movement to a safer location (if available)
- Vertical movement to a safer place or exit of the building (if required)
Able-bodied assistance from staff or other persons (e.g. colleagues or family members if present) will almost certainly be required for all phases of the evacuation of vulnerable persons.
Phase (a) can be potentially time consuming unless it has been carefully considered and efficient management measures adopted and practised. It may also need to be sequential depending on the availability of able-bodied persons to assist. Therefore, trials should be conducted to test communication effectiveness and proposed preparation measures.
The time required for phase (b) is a function of the movement time and the cumulative time taken by able-bodied persons to assist others to move horizontally and return to assist other vulnerable persons. Due to the relative ease of horizontal versus vertical movement, a lesser number of able-bodied persons will be required during phase (b) compared with phase (c).
Sprinklers and compartmentation
Horizontal evacuation into adjacent spaces is possible if these adjacent spaces are adequately protected against spread of fire and smoke through suitably designed and maintained compartmentation and/or sprinkler systems. Smoke zones are required by the Deemed to Satisfy provisions of the National Construction Code Series- Building Code of Australia Volume 1 (BCA) for aged care (Class 9c) and for healthcare building (Class 9a) in respect of treatment and patient care areas. The Deemed to Satisfy to provisions of the BCA require sprinkler protection for Class 9c, but not for hospitals unless the effective height exceeds 25m.
In Victoria, the Capital Development Guideline – Series 7 Fire Risk Management (2013) applies to all healthcare buildings (Guideline 7.6) owned, operated or funded by the Victorian Government, and requires sprinkler protection of bed-based care areas in Class 9a buildings (hospitals).
The question is, if smoke zones and sprinkler protection are provided, is it necessary to consider the full evacuation of vulnerable persons from a building, or is it realistic to assume that vertical evacuation will never be required? The answer to this question depends on the expected effectiveness of the smoke zones in combination with the sprinkler system.
It is important for all designers to understand how each building operates, and also to appreciate that, in some fundamental sense, the buildings themselves are less important than the functions they house. What must be clearly recognised in any assessment is that the building’s construction and fire safety equipment and systems are very important in ensuring adequate egress.
If the sprinkler system fails, then the smoke zone may only provide a limited level of protection and movement into another smoke or fire zone, or vertical evacuation will ultimately be required. If the sprinklered fire is a shielded fire and not quickly extinguished, then there may also be some smoke contamination of the adjacent smoke zone (i.e. the safer zone) resulting in a need to transfer persons evacuating out of the adjacent smoke zone either horizontally into an adjacent fire compartment or vertically by stairs or other means.
There is a need to consider carefully how vertical evacuation could be achieved in healthcare and aged care buildings, should it be required. It’s important to note that vertical evacuation may be difficult, and the welfare of vulnerable persons may be compromised by some methods of vertical movement.
The risks associated with vertical evacuation of vulnerable persons can be reduced by:
- locating vulnerable persons as close to ground level as possible
- providing more horizontal compartments to allow progressive horizontal movement to a safer place should a fire occur in one compartment
- minimising the likelihood of a significant fire through the provision of a well-maintained and managed sprinkler system and other fire safety measures
Stairs are the conventional means of achieving vertical emergency evacuation. However, these can be difficult to negotiate for able-bodied persons, but even more so for vulnerable persons who must be assisted. Specific hardware such as carry chairs, ‘ski sheets’ or evacuation chairs are required if stairs are to be used. The use of such aids can be both time consuming and labour intensive.
It is for this reason that lifts should be considered by designers at the early stages of hospital design to assist with the vertical evacuation of vulnerable persons. With a few exceptions (e.g. Hui (2013)) the use of lifts for the evacuation of vulnerable persons has not been consciously considered by designers at the conceptual stage of hospital design projects.
The use of lifts for evacuation is not a new idea and is recognised, to some extent, by BCA Performance Requirement DP7 and by the requirement for “emergency lifts” for use by the emergency services. The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) has recognised the potential role of lifts for evacuation in the advisory (non-mandatory) handbook Lifts Used During Evacuation (ABCB, 2013).
The use of lifts for emergency evacuation has been a subject of interest since the 1980s (Klote (1986), Groner (1995), Bukowski et al (2002), Klote and Milke (2002), Bukowski (2005, 2010)), with some authors noting the potential hazards and issues associated with the presence of lifts in a building and the use of lifts during a fire event.
These hazards include:
- Untenable conditions within the lift shaft due to smoke contamination caused by smoke being drawn into the shaft via various mechanisms.
- Occupants being taken to a fire directly adjacent to the lift landing doors on the level of fire origin.
- Occupied lifts ceasing to operate due to effects of heat, smoke or water on lift controls or the lift shaft itself.
- Failure of power to the building due to a fire, causing the lift system to cease operation prior to, or after, persons have entered lift.
- Uncertainty about using a lift in a fire situation due to signage normally required adjacent to lift landing doors “Do not use lifts if there is a fire” (e.g. BCA Clause E3.3).
- Lift not controlled adequately – untrained or incompetent operators or confused management protocol.
- Lift doors jamming due to pressure differentials within the building
- Fire within a lift car or shaft and effect on lift occupants.
- Lift taking persons to ground level where fire is located, or adjacent space is smoke logged, and they cannot disembark.
The authors have prepared a technical publication to assist designers with the design of lifts for evacuation of vulnerable persons. This publication reviews previous technical work on this matter and provides a design response to each of the hazards identified. A worked example in relation to a hospital building is presented to further illustrate the importance of lift location and potential design options.
For more information, go to www.fpaa.com.au
- Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) (2013), “Lifts Used During Evacuation”, Non-Mandatory Handbook
- Bukowski, R.W., Burgess, R. and Reneke, P.A., (2002) “Use of Elevators in Fire”, NIST Report SP983
- Bukowski, R. W. (2005), Feature Article: “Protected Elevators and The Disabled”, Fire Protection Engineering, 4th Quarter
- Hui, M.C. (2013), “An Approach to Provide Cost Effective Patient Fire Safety”, Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management 2013: 8: 1, pp39-44
- Klote, J. (1986), “Smoke Control at Veterans Administration Hospitals”, US Department of Commerce, National Bureau of Standards, Report No. NBSIR 85-3297, 1986
- Klote, J. and Milke, J. (2002), “Principles of Smoke Management”, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers
- Groner, N.E. (1995), “Selecting Strategies for Elevator Evacuations”, 2nd Symposium on Elevators, Fire and Accessibility”, Baltimore, Maryland, April 19-21, pp 186 – 189
- Bukowski, R. W. (2010), International Applications of Elevators for Fire Service Access and Occupant Egress in Fires”, Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) Research Paper, Issue III
Dr Ian D Bennetts
Hank Van Ravenstein