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Vol. 10, No. 3 Summer/Fall 2002

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Enabling Safe Evacuations

By Susanne M. Bruyere and William G. Stothers

On Sept. 11, 2001, a woman who uses a wheelchair and worked on the 68th floor of the World Trade Center was able to safely evacuate the building, thanks to a specialized chair. Another wheelchair user-Edward Beyea-worked more than 40 floors closer to the ground, on the 27th floor of the North Tower, but wasn't as fortunate. According to numerous published reports, Beyea and a friend waited for help. They are missing and presumed dead.

The woman who escaped worked in the World Trade Center when it was attacked in 1993. In the aftermath of that attack, a specialized chair designed for carrying someone down flights of stairs was obtained for her in case of emergency.

Surviving a disaster-such as a terrorist attack, fire, flood or earthquake-is a struggle for anyone. That's true also for people with disabilities, who are entering the workforce in ever-increasing numbers.

Who Is Responsible?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to modify their policies and procedures to include people with disabilities. These requirements apply also to evacuation plans.

"Employers may be required to provide reasonable accommodations to employees so they can evacuate during emergencies," states information posted on the web site for the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a service of the U.S. Department of Labor.

The JAN web site also states that although "individuals with disabilities may have specific needs and concerns, all employees will benefit by knowing workplace safety features and emergency procedures."

10 Places to Start

As engineers, architects and safety experts study the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and begin devising new plans and procedures for safely evacuating buildings, they will need to ensure that their plans include everyone.

In the meantime, employers can follow these 10 steps to help all employees-including those with disabilities-escape from a building in case of an emergency:

1. Identify persons who will need assistance. People with mobility impairments-who use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches or canes-come to mind immediately. But, while employers may ask employees with known disabilities if they need assistance in an emergency, employers "should not assume that all individuals with obvious disabilities will require assistance," says Paul Steven Miller, commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

In addition, employers must consider the needs of employees whose conditions may be less obvious, such as:

In addition, many workplaces contract with cleaning crews, security guards and other services that may employ people with disabilities.

Be aware that some individuals may be reluctant to ask for help during emergency planning. Edwina Juillet, a consultant on fire/life safety for people with disabilities, interviewed 27 people with disabilities after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Although emergency plans were developed before the incident, some individuals did not identify themselves as being disabled because they wanted to maintain their privacy or felt they would not need assistance, Juillet found.

2. Consult those identified. Work with these individuals to select any necessary assistive equipment and to set up procedures for ensuring a safe evacuation of the workplace. Consult also with local fire and rescue officials on ways to ensure the safety of employees with disabilities.

Because some individuals with disabilities require a personal attendant or job coach, it is important that these individuals also be consulted.

Impress upon employees that they must take some responsibility for making sure their emergency needs are met. Ask what kind of assistance they might need, how much of it and how best to provide it. "Individuals with disabilities are generally in the best position to assess their particular needs," says the EEOC's Miller.

3. Conduct evacuation drills-both planned and surprise. Practice, practice, practice. "If not practiced, even the best procedures and technologies fail when a real emergency arises," says James L. Mueller, workplace designer and job accommodation consultant to industry and government. "Similarly, by actually going through the motions of an emergency, unforeseen problems and practical solutions are more likely to surface." In addition, it is important to periodically review all evacuation procedures.

4. Consider a "buddy system," where non-disabled volunteers assist people with disabilities. For example, at NCR in Dayton, Ohio, a small team of employees is "assigned to each NCR Employee with a Mobility Disability (EMD) to help evacuate them in case of emergency," says Steve Jacobs, president of IDEAL at NCR, a group that supports NCR employees with disabilities.

Volunteers take on a range of duties, from "accompanying the EMD during the evacuation to carrying them down the stairs." Jacobs adds that "teams are made up of employees in the same department as the EMD. The EMD is responsible for training their team on how/how not to lift and carry them."

5. Make sure that all hallways and stairways are clear. Make sure that fire-safe and smoke-free "areas of refuge/rescue assistance" are established and equipped according to code. These areas, which are required under ADA regulations and often are adjacent to stairways, provide temporary protection from smoke or fire while individuals wait for rescue crews to arrive.

ADA regulations specify that each area of rescue "shall provide at least two accessible areas each being not less that 30 inches by 48 inches. The area … shall not encroach on any required exit width. The total number of such 30-inch by 48-inch areas per story shall be not less than one for every 200 persons of calculated occupant load served by the area of rescue assistance."

Each rescue area also must provide a method of audible and visible two-way communication.

6. Install visual and audible alarms and ensure they are in working order. Consider supplemental lighting and tactile signage on the floor adjacent to exits and areas of rescue assistance, suggests Leslie Young, director of design at the Center for Universal Design at the University of North Carolina at Raleigh.

Smoke will impair standard height visuals for everyone as they crawl along the floor. As a result, floor signage will enhance everyone's chances for survival.

7. Install an evacuation chair on each floor for every person who needs one. Make sure that those who need the chair-and those who will operate them-are trained in their use.

8. Ensure accessible and reliable communications. Jacobs says that NCR's security group "provides each EMD a personal cell phone designed to connect directly to our security office. We have security officers in each of our campus buildings. These officers carry keys to the elevators in these buildings. At their discretion they can opt to use the elevator for evacuation."

9. Provide appropriate equipment and assistance outside of your building. After they evacuate a building, individuals may need certain equipment. For example, people with mobility impairments will need a wheelchair. When the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, blind individuals were successfully evacuated from the buildings-only to be left on their own outside, amid building debris, in a winter ice storm.

10. Include disability-related supplies in office first aid kits. Such supplies-which might include syringes, respirators, catheters, padding and distilled water-may be invaluable in the aftermath of an emergency. Also, encourage employees to makes lists of medications, equipment, doctors and other important information they might need in a disaster or emergency.

Too Much Trouble?

Some employers may be leery of the costs they may incur trying to develop plans to evacuate individuals with disabilities. But such an approach misses the potential benefits of such planning.

"Designing universal access into disaster relief plans, far from being a costly proposition, can pay off handsomely," says Peter David Blanck, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law. "A universal design approach to meeting the needs of people with disabilities before and after a disaster will benefit many people without disabilities, such as the very young or the aged."

Reprinted with the permission of HR Magazine published by the Society for Human Resource Management (, Alexandria, VA. Susanne M. Bruyère, SPHR, is the director of the Program on Employment and Disability at Cornell University in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations-Extension Division in Ithaca, N.Y. She currently serves on the Board of the National Association of Rehabilitation Research and Training Centers. William G. Stothers is deputy director of the Center for an Accessible Society, a San Diego-based center established to promote coverage of disability and independent living by the national media. Stothers previously was editor of MAINSTREAM Magazine, a national newsmagazine for people with disabilities. He also worked as an editor at The San Diego Union and Toronto Star newspapers.

More on Evacuation Plan

Until architects design buildings with a universal evacuation plan, people with disabilities, who live and/or work above the second floor, need to design their own evacuation plans. Without one they may find themselves left behind. This article will acquaint you with some evacuation devices on the market.

FYI: Evacuation Products

The Evacu-Trac, manufactured by Garventa, has tracks that grip stairs securely, safety straps, and can carry up to 300 pounds. It comes with an optional steel storage cabinet. For more info on this device, call 800-663-6556.

The Evac+Chair is light (18 pounds) and has a 300 pound capacity. With it, a person can get another person out of the building. Call 212-369-3710 for further information.

The Evac-Aide is a convenient device constructed of heavy fire resistant material with reinforced webbing over the full length on each side. It has four hand loops on each side for easy carrying. It has a slick lower surface that reduces friction, making it easy to drag a heavy person out. It can also be rigged as a sling using the S hooks (two on each end). Contact Tie Tech Inc. or call 425-743-5863 for more information on their products.

With the EvacuSled the user literally slides down the steps to safety (with the help of others guiding it and regulating its speed). It's small and can be stored under a bed or in a utility closet. Gravity helps the volunteers slide the unit, without risk of injury. To learn more about this device call 514-356-1224.

This is not an all-inclusive list of evacuation devices and manufacturers, and we do not endorse one product over another. Do some investigation and check out several devices to find the one most appropriate for your own needs and situation. Heavy blankets or canvas, a cot or even a hand truck could also be used as an evacuation device. But a device alone isn't enough. Ask neighbors or co-workers to volunteer to help you out of the building should an evacuation occur. Have a mock evacuation to test your device and plans.

What You Can Do Now

Besides having a plan and the right evacuation device, find out if the building keeps a list of everyone who needs help leaving the building. It should indicate the floor on which the people with a disability work or live, so firemen know where people may be waiting for help. Certainly find out if there are any evacuation aids on your floor. Advocate for yourself and other people with disabilities in the building to get some devices if there are none.
Spend some of your advocacy efforts pushing for buildings that have a universally designed evacuation method. Until that changes, people with disabilities will always face formidable disadvantage during emergencies.

Excerpted with permission from "Last Invited In & Forced to be Last Out," an article in TECHTALK, the Illinois Assistive Technology Project Newsletter (217-522-7985;

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