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What you need to know when you are evacuating people with disabilities

One of the most unexpected consequences of the inclusion of people with disabilities is a surprising discovery that architectural accessibility means not just ‘blazing a trail to get inside a building’ but also creating opportunities to exit the building.

It may be caused by the fact that leaving a building in the conditions of its everyday use is not a challenge as a person with a disability must simply move along the same path, only in the opposite direction. Although it may sound like a truism, the situation becomes more complicated when the standard route can no longer be used, .e.g. in an emergency situation when lifts and elevators do not operate. In all likelihood, the evacuation route follows a different way leading to the nearest emergency exit, properly constructed, which may contain architectural barriers. There may also arise other unexpected obstacles which will prevent people with disabilities from moving independently.

Worse still, this otherwise obvious observation may generate ideas with an intention to revert to much easier solutions excluding people with disabilities from full access, for example by offering them space ‘on the ground floor’ only. These may include classes on the ground floor, an office for the staff member on the ground floor or a toilet, preferably only one, on the ground floor only. And, of course, a person with a disability should have ‘a carer’ next to him or her who will ‘help him or her if something goes wrong’1.

The graphic shows a fire truck, firefighters standing next to it and a lady with a dog on a leash.

This is the best moment to say that such ideas are absolutely out of place, and the fact that the evacuation of people with disabilities poses a greater challenge cannot be used as an excuse to limit accessibility by the owner or administrator of a facility. On the contrary, responding to the needs of users and respecting regulations on the accessibility of buildings for people with special needs2 should become a priority to be acted upon.

A person with a disability should know what solutions are available, what one may demand and what one should do in order to increase one’s safety.

Buildings occupied by people often include spaces where they can go to avoid danger. Such spaces are separate fire zones. Considering the need of the evacuation of people with disabilities, they are created in such places where the majority of occupants may need assistance in the event of an evacuation (nursing homes, crèches). In other places (university buildings, offices, hotels or shopping centres), whether such a space exists depends on the building size, height and purpose. Separate fire zones allow people to leave the danger zone without having to go out of the building. It also helps to provide room where one can take shelter and wait safely for assistance for a certain period of time. It can include structures built intentionally for this purpose called areas of refuge (unfortunately almost non-existent in Poland as of today) or, commonly found in many locations, fire-separated stairwells or smokeproof enclosures connected with them that can become makeshift rescue platforms3. These can be used to await further evacuation when someone cannot go outside because of a disability. Such a two-stage evacuation method is envisaged in, among others, Article 6 of the Accessibility Act:

Minimum requirements which ensure accessibility for persons with special needs involve

1) for architectural accessibility:


e) providing people with special needs with an option of evacuation or being rescued in another way (…)4

It should be emphasised that a person who has moved into a separate fire zone is already safe, whereas remaining in a stairwell or a smokeproof enclosure preceding it ensures relative and temporary safety, which is only a stage of an evacuation event.

For people with disabilities, it is essential to know what assistance they can receive and how to get it. Self-protection can be achieved by quick and easy access to essential phone numbers that can be called in an emergency situation. These should include standard emergency phone numbers as well as numbers to places (such as the reception area) and people that will always respond. Many institutions have designated staff who, during an emergency situation, manage the evacuation event and support those who need assistance or help to leave the building. At the Jagiellonian University, they are called evacuation assistants and can be recognised by reflective waistcoats they put on when the alarm goes off and they encourage people to leave the building. These are the people who will be helpful and should be approached. You should know beforehand what kind of assistance you

may need from them. They have received training in evacuating people with disabilities, so they have basic knowledge of how they should behave, but it would always be helpful if people with disabilities could clearly explain their expectations and needs to those in charge, so that the actions taken are as fitting and safe as possible.

When considering an emergency that may result in the need to evacuate, one should be aware of what equipment or services may be necessary in such a situation, e.g. evacuation chairs, evacuation mattresses, seating places at an assembly point or the help of assistants. It is important to know whether such equipment is available and whether it will be comfortable and useful for a particular person. This is why you should find out about and identify your preferences, as well as verify whether you can use the equipment at the place which you occupy on a regular basis. Both evacuation chairs and mattresses are new to Polish conditions, but according to the studies that were carried out, evacuation using such equipment is faster and safer for both the person with a disability and evacuation assistants. Fewer people are also needed to assist people with disabilities5. The Jagiellonian University has evacuation chairs in many locations and new chairs are being purchased systematically. Evacuation assistants learn how to use them and practise this skill in mock evacuation drills.

A person with a disability should become familiar with the escape route and check in person what it looks like and what can be found on the way. It is particularly important for people with visual impairments. This can be requested from employees responsible for the operation of the building, such as building administrators or the gatehouse staff. At the Jagiellonian University, such services can also be provided by employees of the Jagiellonian University Accessibility Centre and the Fire Safety Inspectorate.

People with disabilities at the Jagiellonian University can request an individual evacuation plan, which is modelled on similar solutions used in the West6. Such a plan makes it possible to prepare a more effective response tailored to individual needs, which goes beyond standard solutions. It may involve the purchase of additional equipment or extra training for staff. Thanks to it, evacuation chairs and tactile maps showing the evacuation route may be deployed.

One should make a plan for the consequences that may arise in an emergency situation when returning to daily life becomes difficult: in the event of equipment loss, contact with a

relative, friend or assistant, or even communication difficulties preventing the person’s return home as usual.

Addressing people with disabilities in this article, I would like to emphasise that respecting their needs and developing an awareness of what can be helpful in an emergency situation is a challenge for everyone. Every person should do it the moment they enter any building. Unfortunately, as proven by experience, it is only done by people who are aware of its significance, such as professional rescue workers and individuals who personally participated in an emergency situation which undermined their sense of safety and motivated them to greater consciousness. I hope that these short remarks will enable people with disabilities to join this privileged group, too, so that they can consciously benefit from the existing solutions and effectively demand what is required by law to be implemented in practice.


11 The author shall refrain from discussing such situations from the remote past when persons on wheelchairs were forbidden to enter such spaces precisely because of fire protection regulations. This is also mentioned by Al Davison in his publication ‘The Spiral Cage’. Cf. Angelina Adams, ‘The Spiral Cage’: Disability and the Work of Al Davison ( , access on 18 November 2022)

2The Accessibility Act of 2019

3Leszko B., Platformy ratunkowe, [in:] Inżynier budownictwa, (181), marzec 2020

4The Accessibility Act of 2019.

5Mgr inż. poż. Andrzej Migas, Ergonomiczne aspekty ewakuacji osób ze szczególnymi potrzebami w trakcie działań ratowniczo-gaśniczych z uwzględnieniem krzeseł ewakuacyjnych, materacy oraz mat ratowniczych. Prezentacja wygłoszona na Konferencji naukowo-technicznej: Ewakuacja osób z niepełnosprawnościami, Wrocław, 7-8 kwietnia 2022 r.

6Wolny P., Tuśnio N., Ewakuacja osób z niepełnosprawnościami, [in:] Przegląd pożarniczy, styczeń 2020

Reference literature:

  1. Hyjek M., Augustyniak M., Tota-Stawarczyk P., Dostępność. Bezpieczna ewakuacja. Fundacja Polska bez barier, Warszawa 2022.
  2. Migas A., Ergonomiczne aspekty ewakuacji osób ze szczególnymi potrzebami w trakcie działań ratowniczo-gaśniczych z uwzględnieniem krzeseł ewakuacyjnych, materacy oraz mat ratowniczych. Prezentacja wygłoszona na konferencji naukowo-technicznej „Ewakuacja osób z niepełnosprawnościami”, Wrocław, 7-8 kwietnia 2022 r.
  3. Wolny P., Tuśnio N., Ewakuacja osób z niepełnosprawnościami, [in:] Przegląd pożarniczy, styczeń 2020.
  4. Leszko B., Platformy ratunkowe, [in:] Inżynier budownictwa, (181), marzec 2020.
  5. Ustawa o zapewnieniu dostępności osobom ze szczególnymi potrzebami, [access date: 18 November 2022].
  6. Szmitkowski P., Ochrona osób z niepełnosprawnościami w sytuacji nadzwyczajnych zagrożeń, Uniwersytet Przyrodniczo-Humanistyczny w Siedlcach, Siedlce 2020.

About the author

Małgorzata Perdeus-Białek – coach, educator, disability specialist, long-term employee of the Jagiellonian University Accessibility Centre (earlier Disability Support Service).