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October 20, 2008    DOL Home > ODEP > Publications > Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities


D. Egress

Egress is defined as “the act of coming in or going out [especially from an enclosed area]; emergence.” It is also defined as “a path or opening for going out; an exit.” Therefore, it makes sense that developing an effective emergency preparedness plan involves considering specific egress options. This breakout session provided participants the chance to explore the pros and cons of various evacuation procedures, including the use of elevators and the establishment of safe areas. For example, it has become widely accepted to avoid using the elevators for evacuation purposes in the event of a fire, but there are situations in which elevator use is appropriate. Specific discussion included determining, evaluating, and prioritizing evacuation options.

The breakout session consisted of presentations by June Kailes and Edwina Juillet. Issacson Kailes serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions at Western University of Health Sciences. Juillet is the Co-Founder of the National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities.

As Kailes and Juillet reminded participants, the first step in determining egress options is planning. Agencies must consider such issues as elevator use, ‘areas of refuge,’ the type of equipment available, and who will require assistance. Training, practice, and research are essential in helping both agencies and individuals determine the most effective practices and evaluate the options. Moreover, engaging in drills and soliciting feedback allow an agency to continually refine its practices. Finally, when evaluating and prioritizing options, it is also critical to consider the nature of the emergency.


According to Kailes, the disability community motto, “Nothing about us without us” should be a guiding principle in emergency preparedness planning. Employees with disabilities must actively participate throughout the decision-making process. Kailes identified the following as primary issues to be considered in egress planning:

  • Determining appropriate instances for elevator use. Juillet reminded attendees that we, as a society, are conditioned to avoid using elevators during an emergency. However, elevators can be used in certain circumstances. Consequently, safe use of elevators needs to be a learned response.

Following an emergency (where an alarm is activated), elevators automatically move to the main floor (or floor exiting to the outside) and lock down in Phase I. According to The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Phase I is also referred to as Emergency Recall Operation. It is defined as “the operation of an elevator where it is automatically or manually recalled to a specific landing and removed from normal service because of activation of firefighters’ service” (ASME A17.1). Once fire personnel arrive and ensure the elevators are safe to use, authorized personnel can operate them manually (Phase II). New elevators have buttons (marked with a red fire hat) that flash when they are unsafe for use.

One participant, who oversees security in several buildings near the Capitol, explained that his agency developed the following procedures regarding elevator use:

The [specific agency personnel] have been trained to evaluate the safety of elevators in these buildings and operate them in Phase II, if appropriate. They then stop at each floor to determine if there is anyone with a mobility impairment who needs to use the elevator. Those requiring assistance are instructed to board designated elevators only if they are operated by [specific agency personnel]. Building occupants know that in an emergency the elevators are to be used only by people who have mobility impairments. However, if necessary, those with temporary disabilities can also use the elevators.

  • Designating “areas of refuge” or “areas of rescue assistance”: Juillet pointed out that (while there is no such requirement in the ADA), the Access Board’s ADA Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG) define areas of refuge or areas of rescue assistance as a part of the requirements for ‘accessible means of egress.’ Such areas are only necessary in new buildings. Structures with an approved sprinkler system are an exception and do not require an area of refuge.

    ADAAG has six configurations, each with specifications for signage, communication, etc. Juillet stated her bias for only three of these configurations: elevator lobby, exit stair landing, and the horizontal exit (e.g., where two buildings are connected by a fire-rated corridor (or bridge)). If an aerial evacuation (fire department equipment with a ladder and/or a ‘cherry picker’) is utilized, be sure the equipment can reach to room window. The rule of thumb is that the equipment can reach up to the seventh story. However, that is only when the area below the window is perfectly level and has a solid ‘footing.’

  • Developing personal support networks (in lieu of the ‘buddy system’): Substitute the buddy system with a personal support system. Encourage employees to build relationships with a number of individuals, so they will not be without assistance in an emergency. Facilitate this through staff training.
  • Carrying and lifting people with disabilities: Participants had questions about assisting an employee who uses a wheelchair out of a building. Kailes and Juillet recommended talking with the individual in order to develop a plan with that person. Some people have a preference. They said there are several choices: using an evacuation chair or carrying the person out. Make sure people are trained on the use of evacuation chairs, and have regular practice sessions. Carrying a person can be somewhat cumbersome and even dangerous. Talk with the individual to determine the best way to move them, and again, make sure to rehearse the procedure. If there is absolutely no one available to assist the individual, instruct him or her to go to a designated area and contact emergency personnel.
  • Selecting appropriate devices: There is no one model or piece of equipment that is appropriate for every situation or for every individual. In fact, with regard to evacuation chairs there has been little, if any, research. Juillet and Kailes underscored the importance of agencies doing their own research, talking with other organizations, and working with local fire departments.

    One participant, for example, said his agency found that evacuation chairs were difficult to use and required extensive training. As a result, the agency issues them only when the person with a disability agrees and the staff is trained. Another accommodation has been the smoke hood. This agency has distributed smoke hoods to some people with mobility impairments, in the event that it takes them longer to evacuate the building. Employees have also been instructed to evacuate to other buildings, since several are connected by passageways.

    Another participant pointed out that egress planning is complicated by the fact that federal agencies often occupy only portions of a building, which are shared by private companies. Coordination can be difficult unless you have a strong landlord. It was suggested that agencies encourage landlords to use a coordinated emergency evacuation plan as a selling point for lease of space.

Kailes cautioned that planning should not be seen as a one-time event with beginning, middle, and end, but rather as an on-going process. An agency plan should be viewed as a living document. If necessary, additional plans should be developed for those who work after hours or on the night shift. The plan must be continually revised and updated to reflect changes in technology and procedures. Both research and practice drills are essential to continuously strengthening a plan.


The following aspects are key to the implementation phase. Keep in mind that an agency plan should be available in a variety of formats. The plan should be reader-friendly (bulleted lists versus long paragraphs) and available in languages other than English.

  • Identifying employees who will need assistance during egress: Kailes reminded participants that no one knows better than employees with disabilities the type of accommodations needed in an emergency situation. She stressed it is critical to keep in mind that not everyone needing assistance will self-identify. Cast a broad net. Word questions in a manner that encourages the greatest number of employees to respond. For example, avoid using the word disability, since individuals with such conditions as asthma, panic attacks, significant allergies, heart conditions, and age-related conditions may not consider themselves disabled. However, even the most carefully crafted inquiries will not cause all to self-identify, so plans should take into account these individuals, as well as visitors.

    Participants had questions regarding both individuals who may be reluctant to self-identify and planning for visitors. There are individuals who feel strongly about being identified as having a disability or medical condition. There are also those who think they will not need assistance. Questions surfaced regarding how to account for these individuals. The presenters reminded attendees to be observant and take note of who takes more time to exit than his/her peers. Plan for several additional individuals, including guests and visitors, when purchasing devices and training employees to assist with egress.

    With regard to planning for visitors, Juillet and Kailes recommended putting a map and emergency numbers on the back of Visitor’s badges. But, as one participant explained, this could be a problem, especially if there is a high volume of visitors per day. Agencies may not have the funds to produce the badges. In addition, visitors may forget to return them. However, as another attendee pointed out, the same could be said of current Visitors’ badges. Some agencies use paper badges and/or ask visitors to temporarily surrender identification. Another recommendation was that visitors be escorted at all times. In the latter scenario, the escort would assist his/her visitor out of the building in the event of an emergency.

  • Training for both those requiring assistance and those providing assistance: Training and cross training is essential. Individuals (and their co-workers) needing to use emergency evacuation devices, such as evacuation chairs, should be trained regarding their proper operation. This will allow these employees to better direct others on the use of the equipment, in the event that “trained” personnel are not available. Keep in mind that separate training may be necessary for those who work after normal business hours.

    Some participants raised the issue of embarrassment or self-consciousness on the part of individuals who need assistance in egress. For example, there may be individuals who are uncomfortable practicing evacuation procedures in a group setting. For these employees, consider one-on-one training or trying out different evacuation methods and devices.

  • Conducting various types of drills: Juillet explained that while conducting standard drills are important, varying the drills and imbedding “stumbling blocks” is vital to helping employees prepare for the unexpected. Both announced and unannounced drills should be conducted several times a year. Drills should vary (evacuation and shelter-in-place) and pose a variety of challenges, such as closed off hallways, blocked doors, or unconscious individuals, along designated evacuation routes.

    Practice also makes a difference. In 1993, during the World Trade Center bombing, a woman could not figure out how to leave the building until two co-workers came by and reminded her about the evacuation chair under her desk. Human factor studies support the idea of practice: people tend to come and go from the same place using the same route. It is important that employees practice using the stairways, because in many cases, they may not know the location of the stairs until they are required to use them.

There are three types of drills: walkthrough drills, scheduled drills, and unannounced drills.

  • Walkthrough drills: These allow personnel to discuss possible difficulties and slowly practice evacuation techniques. For example, people might practice using an evacuation chair or carrying someone.
  • Scheduled Drills: Such drills provide an opportunity to practice evacuating people with disabilities in a slow and controlled environment. The procedures are methodically practiced by all.
  • Unannounced Drills: It is critical that unannounced drills occur only after scheduled drills. This ensures that the kinks are worked out and people do not practice incorrectly. In addition, do not hold surprise drills when emotions are high (e.g., around the anniversary of September 11th or the sniper attacks). Juillet recommended that emergency response staff (e.g., Floor Wardens) be notified prior to such drills, so that they can practice their responsibilities.

    There were additional questions related to both staff and visitors participating in drills. Since there are no penalties for not participating, many employees ignore or avoid the drills. Suggestions included developing creative educational techniques, such as fun exercises, or making participation in drills part of the annual performance evaluations. Additionally, visitors may not want to be detained during a shelter-in-place drill. Those who intended to be in the building for only a brief time (e.g., delivering a document), and have other commitments, may protest about participating in such drills. Consider establishing a safe exit route for such exceptions.

  • Debriefing and asking for feedback: Make sure to conduct debriefings after drills. Revise and update the plan based on feedback then redistribute the plan. It may also be beneficial to request assistance from a local fire department. The Arlington County Fire Department, for example, was described as being helpful in evaluating procedures and providing feedback.


Since technology is constantly evolving, it is critical to keep abreast of new devices and current research. The primary technology areas for egress are alarms, elevators, and evacuation chairs.

Alarms. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA-72) sets the standards for alarms.

Elevators. The protocol regarding elevator use during emergencies is changing; in fact, Juillet made reference to an upcoming conference that will address elevator issues. Europe is developing standards that will enable elevator use during emergency evacuations. These standards will address fire ratings and the need for water protection (e.g., waterproof components, safety brakes, switches).

Evacuation chairs. Kailes stated that there are no objective evaluations or ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards regarding evacuation chairs, leaving emergency managers responsible for independently researching and selecting them.

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