Escape Route Guidance For Disabled People

Means Of Escape For Disabled People

Legislation dealing with the needs of disabled people does not make any specific requirements regarding means of escape in case of fire. However, the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires employers to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to their premises to ensure that no employee is at a disadvantage. This includes ensuring that disabled people can leave the premises safely in the event of fire.

As an employer, you are therefore under an obligation to ensure that your emergency plan takes account of disabled people. It is essential that you identify the special needs of any disabled employees when planning your fire safety arrangements and evacuation procedures. You will also need to consider other less able-bodied people who may have access to the workplace.

You may have to take account of the difficulties people with a wide range of physical and/or mental impairment can have in getting in and out of the workplace (particularly in an emergency). If any of your employees have disabilities, your emergency plan should be developed in conjunction with them, taking their disabilities into account.

Means Of Escape

Means of escape for disabled people in new or altered buildings is provided for by building regulations and, in existing buildings, by fire safety legislation (e.g. the Fire Regulations and the Fire Precautions Act etc. British Standard 5588: Part 8 gives detailed guidance regarding most new or altered buildings. The code should also be followed wherever possible in relation to existing buildings. However, it is important to note that the relevant legislation has to be complied with in the event of any conflict with the code. The following guidance is based upon some of the recommendations in the British Standard but the code itself should be referred to for greater detail.

Use of Lifts as Means of Escape

Unlike normal passenger lifts, it is essential that a lift which is to be used to evacuate disabled people can continue to be operated with a reasonable degree of safety when there is a fire in the building. Although it is not necessary to provide a lift specifically for the evacuation of disabled people, a fire-fighting lift (see British Standard 5588: Part 5), which is provided principally for the use of the fire service, may be used to evacuate disabled people before the fire brigade arrive. Another acceptable way of evacuating disabled people requiring assistance is a passenger (evacuation) lift (see British Standards 5810 and 5655).

Normally, only disabled people should rely on a lift as a means of escape and only then if it is an evacuation lift specially designed for the evacuation of disabled people as described in British Standard 5588: Part 8. It must be under the control of the management using an agreed evacuation procedure. The lift should be provided with a means of switching control from general use to the car itself, so that an operator can take it to those floors from which disabled people need to be evacuated.


Because of the limits on distances to be travelled for means of escape, most disabled people should be able to reach the safety of a protected escape route or final exit independently. However, some disabled people, for example those who rely upon a wheelchair, will not be able to use stairways without assistance. For these people it may be necessary to provide refuges on all storeys other than in those small buildings of limited height (e.g. where the distance of travel to a final exit is so limited that refuges are unnecessary). You should check with your local fire authority before considering providing refuges. In this situation, a refuge is an area that is both separated from the fire by fire-resisting construction and which has access via a safe route to a storey exit. It provides a temporarily safe space for disabled people to wait for others to help them evacuate.Examples of satisfactory refuges include:

      • An enclosure such as a compartment, protected lobby, protected corridor or protected stairway (see ‘Technical terms relating to means of escape’ earlier in Part 3);
      • An area in the open air such as a flat roof, balcony, podium or similar space which is sufficiently protected (or remote) from any fire risk and provided with its own means of escape; and
      • Any other arrangements which satisfy the general principles outlined above and which provide at least an equal measure of safety.

The refuge needs to be big enough to allow wheelchair use and to allow the user to manoeuvre into the wheelchair space without undue difficulty. It is essential that the location of any wheelchair spaces within refuges does not adversely affect the means of escape for other people.


Older people would generally benefit from facilities provided for people with a disability in public buildings but not all are in need of them. Only a minority of elderly people would be classified as having a disability. It is a mistake to equate old age with physical disability, but the age of the likely occupants will need to be considered in any calculations for means of escape facilities.

Assisting the less able-bodied

If people use a wheelchair, or can only move about with the use of walking aids, their disability is obvious. But disabilities can sometimes be less obvious than this and staff should be vigilant in an emergency, so that help can be given to those members of the public who need it most, including the very young and the elderly. If members of staff have disabilities, the emergency plan should be developed in conjunction with them, taking this into account.

Assisting wheelchair users and people with impaired mobility. In drawing up an evacuation plan, you should consider how wheelchair users and people with impaired mobility can be assisted. Some types of lift may be used but, where stairs need to be negotiated and people with disabilities may have to be carried, you should consider training enough able-bodied members of staff in the correct methods of doing so.

With a number of individuals, their impaired mobility may only be temporary. Members of staff in the advanced stages of pregnancy or with broken limbs will only be temporarily affected, but you must consider their special needs in your emergency plan.

Assisting people with impaired vision

People with impaired vision or colour perception may experience difficulty in seeing or recognising fire safety signs. However, many people are able to read print if it is sufficiently large and well designed with a good, clear typeface. Signs should therefore be designed and sited so that they can be seen easily and are readily distinguishable.

Good lighting and the use of simple colour contrasts can also help visually impaired people find their way around. If you need advice about this, you can contact the Royal National Institute for the Blind or the National Federation of the Blind of the United Kingdom. Staff with impaired vision should be familiarised with escape routes, especially those which are not in general use. In an evacuation of a building, a sighted person should lead such members of staff to safety. Similar assistance should be offered to guide dog owners, with the owner retaining control of the dog. A normally sighted person should remain with staff with impaired vision until the emergency is over.

In the evacuation of the premises, it is recommended that a sighted person should lead, inviting the other person to grasp their elbow, as this will enable the person being assisted to walk half a step behind and thereby gain information about doors and steps etc. Similar assistance should be offered to guide dog owners, with the owner retaining control of the dog. Employees need to be clear what to do if the guide dog remains in the building and refuses to leave. Human life should not be put at risk if the dog refuses to leave.

Assisting people with impaired hearing

Although people with impaired hearing may experience difficulty in hearing a fire alarm, they may not be completely insensitive to sound; some may be able to hear a conventional alarm signal and require no special provision. However, where a member of staff or the public is known to have difficulty, someone should be given the responsibility of alerting the individual concerned. You will need to have cover for leave and other absences. You can also get advice from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People.

You should consult your workforce before and after the installation of alternative alarm signals because of possible unwanted side effects and to ensure that the system is effective. Induction loop systems used in some premises for audio communication with people using suitable hearing aids are not acceptable as a means of alerting people with impaired hearing in the event of fire. However, if such systems are in normal use in your workplace, they may be used to supplement the alarm.

Assisting people with learning difficulties or mental illness

Any staff with learning difficulties or mental illness must be told what they should do in the event of fire. Arrangements should be made to ensure that they are assisted and reassured in a fire situation and are accompanied to a place of safety; they should not be left unattended. Advice may also be sought from MENCAP or from local residential or day services for people with learning difficulties.