Seven years ago, new legislation was passed in Australia to make all public buildings fully accessible for people with disability.
While the legislation was deemed a giant leap forward in terms of disabled rights, what it didn’t consider was how to safely evacuate people with disability from those very same buildings, in the event of an emergency.
In Australia, as much as 20 per cent of the population is living with some form of disability, not including those who may be temporarily injured, unwell or heavily pregnant.
To the present day, there remains no clear legislation in place to design buildings to ensure the timely evacuation of these people. Instead, the responsibility is passed directly onto building occupants, who are required to come up with their own emergency exit strategy, under guidance from ‘Australian Standard 3745:2010 Planning for Emergencies in Facilities’.
For many buildings, like big city high rises, this causes a complex problem. During fires, for example, the use of lifts is generally prohibited, which for some may be the only reasonable escape route. Many buildings also rely on audible alarms to notify occupants, which can present an issue for people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Lee Wilson is a Director at Egress Group; an organization whose primary goal is to raise awareness about the importance of ‘universal design’.
Lee believes that shifting the responsibility onto tenants is problematic and highly ineffective. “Someone who has injured their leg at football over the weekend or who is heavily pregnant may not class themselves as disabled”, he says. “As such it may not occur to them that they need to develop their own strategy for safely evacuating a building, in the event of a fire or other catastrophe”.
In the context of high rise offices or workplaces, Lee also highlights that people living with disability are often under-represented in the workforce and may wish to make as little noise as possible regarding their rights, in case of jeopardizing their employment.
Lee finds it shocking that this gap in legislation still exists in Australia today and is surprised that people are not talking about it more. He is concerned that it will take a catastrophic event to happen before appropriate action is taken.
While the topic of mandatory dedicated refuge areas on each floor of a high rise building was raised some time ago by the Australian Building Codes Board, since 1997 discussions for the safe egress of people with disability have moved away from this solution, most likely on the grounds of cost.
The introduction of a non-mandatory handbook on the use of lifts for evacuation purposes has also failed to stimulate much interest or action. This contrasts with many other developed countries which currently mandate the use of refuge floors or, at least, a refuge area.
Lee argues for the importance of a holistic approach to universal design, that is started early on in the concept phase of building design and involves all stakeholders, including future occupants.
Presenting at the Australian Cladding & Building Standards Summit – 25-26 June in Melbourne – Lee Wilson will outline his concept of ‘universal design’ as well as his specific recommendations to government, industry and stakeholders on how to effectively resolve this issue.