The amendments to the National Building Regulations promulgated 1 October 2008 included some really good things.
Many people felt they should have been more demanding, but I am happy that it might now be at a level where it can be noticed, and responded to, whilst being enforceable. Fortunately our Constitution actually picks up any slack.
Most important is the fact that Part S - Facilities for Persons with Disabilities- has been clearly linked to Part T - Fire Protection - in the very last line. No matter where it comes, it is there.
The very first clause of the Fire Protection is worded:
T1 - GENERAL ENFORCEMENT
(1) Any building shall be so designed, constructed and equipped that in the case of fire-
(a) The protection of occupants or users, including persons with disabilities, therein is ensured and that provision is made for the safe evacuation of such occupants or users; (The italics indicate the only change to this clause.)
I had not appreciated that many architects are now a bit nervous about their responsibility to Persons with Disabilities, because of safety issues. The responsibility was always there, it just wasn’t noticed!
Without this addition many considered that this group of people had to fend for themselves; or perhaps they just weren’t considered, even though upper floors have often been provided with accessible toilets.
Most occupiers of multi-storey buildings are encouraged to do ‘fire drills’ on a regular basis so that, like on board ship or in an aeroplane, you know what to do if the alarm is sounded. I wonder where the mobility impaired are instructed to go?What is a Refuge Area?
It is an independently ventilated area where people can go to be safe. Refuge areas should be able to accommodate wheelchair users and their helpers and it is good if it includes some sort of communication facilities to the outside world. At the Moses Mabida Stadium in Durban, which was built for the soccer World Cup, four very high tech rooms, equally placed around the perimeter, have been provided for this purpose on the level 5, immediately adjacent to the fire escape stairs. (I think pedestrian traffic management will be necessary in order to preclude persons from using these instead of going to the fire escapes!)
I also think that the landing, on the same floor as the fire escapes, should be designed for this purpose: People who have been injured, and persons with mobility impairments, could safely stay there while evacuees rush down and out, and firemen rush up to stave the spread of the fire. Fire escapes are independently ventilated to stop the penetration of the fire into them.Now that accessibility is considered a safety issue, I think there is a better chance of persuading building owners, and developers, to insist on this aspect. I’m sure persons with disabilities didn’t appreciate just how vulnerable they were in multi-storey buildings.
The word “equipped” is used in the Regulations and this is of concern. The World Trade Centre was equipped with ‘evac-chairs’ which were given to every wheelchair user who worked there. Over time these were mostly misplaced or lost, and so very few of the intended users had the opportunity to use them. Mind you, in that instance, the people who used the refuge areas perished.
My approach is that the WTC fire was very unusual. Fires are attended, and prevented from spreading, every year in every country, and people are led to safety from refuge areas.
Evac- chairs require that a wheelchair user abandon his chair. This is very difficult. There is something to be said for this device as an extreme backup, but persons being carried in them are likely to delay the evacuation of other people. I believe the responsibility of the building designer is to design a building that in itself is capable of protecting the user.
Being able to wait in the refuge area, and then use evac chairs does seem like a sensible arrangement.; but the refuge area is an essential element.