Emergency Apathy

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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This feature started its life following a simple, off the cuff question. Whilst standing on the top floor of the National Dance Agency building Dance City, located in Newcastle upon Tyne, we asked how someone in a wheelchair would be able to get out in the event of an emergency, particularly a fire, since the lifts would be shut off for safety reasons.

The response was, to say the least, surprising. Absent the ability to remove a wheelchair user using an "evacuation chair" or some other means, that person is required to wait in a so-called "safe zone" until such time as they can be removed from the building as part of an evacuation plan.

Our response to this, here in TheLabā„¢, was to mock up a design or two of theoretical dance buildings illustrating how ramps could possibly be integrated into their construction to be used in the event of an emergency or when there was a problem with the lifts. We were going to leave it at that, but, the more questions we asked, the more curious we became.

The fundamental issue here is one of autonomy for all. Imagine, if you will, a scenario where anybody and everybody can use whatever building they want without any restrictions, without having to inform someone beforehand and without any special rules or restrictions. Imagine a scenario where, in an emergency or out of necessity somebody in a wheelchair can get out of building just as easily as somebody who isn't in a wheelchair.

A constant throughout the safety procedures we have been researching is that somebody with a disability is required to rely on somebody else to help them get out of a building in an emergency. This means that a wheelchair user cannot be on the upper floors of a building either on their own or without informing numerous other people of their presence.

Such procedures also depend on there being enough appropriately trained personnel in the building at any given time to carry out the pre-determined fire evacuation procedures.

National building regulations, which all publicly accessible buildings are required to follow and supplied to us by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) state that these "refuges";

"are relatively safe waiting areas for short periods. They are not areas where disabled people should be left alone indefinitely until rescued by the fire and rescue service, or until the fire is extinguished."

Leaving aside the suitably ambiguous term "relatively safe", in reality these refuge areas are small spaces next to or within the exit stairs of a particular facility separated from the main building by a fire door. The idea is that these areas are more fire hardened than the rest of the building. Refuges also have to include a communication system so anybody waiting there in the event of an emergency can talk to someone and let them know they are there.

The building regulations themselves do not specify what should happen if the refuge area is either on fire or filled with smoke. On the face of it that may seem like a rather glib comment but fire fighters themselves are not permitted inside burning buildings without fire proof safety gear and breathing equipment. Items as yet not made available to those required to wait in safe zones.

In fact, the regulations, a document with over 170 pages, covers refuges and their specifications in just a few short paragraphs.

Ramp It Up


The ancient Egyptians used ramps all the time, why can't we? TheCube by Article19, click to enlarge.

By far the simplest method for wheelchair users to get into and get out of any building is a ramp. They are simple, cheap and they cannot break down, unlike mechanical lifts.

Malcolm Fraser Architects, who designed the aforementioned Dance City building and Dance Base in Edinburgh and the home of Scottish Ballet in Glasgow told us that ramps were not included in building designs for the simple reason that they take up too much space.

They also told us that an alternative means of escape the, so-called, fire lift is often not deployed in many buildings because they are too expensive. A fire lift is a hardened, fire resistant lift that can be used not only by fire fighters to gain access to burning buildings but also allow people to leave said building if the stairs are not suitable for them to use.

Article19 contacted more than a dozen architecture firms to discuss the issue of emergency access/egress for people with disabilities with the people responsible for designing the buildings that they have to use. None were willing to put up any of their architects to talk about the issue, not even in a theoretical context.

Luckily for us Rambert Dance Company are currently constructing a brand new dance building in London which will open next year. Curiously though they were unwilling to discuss the design features within their new facility for people with disabilities to use in the event of an emergency. Additionally, they would not reveal what discussions, if any, had taken place during the design process about emergency egress for people with disabilities.

An unwillingness to speak to this issue was shared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who endorse the government supplied booklet "Fire Safety Risk Assessment, Means of Escape For Disabled People". The EHRC suggested we speak with the Health and Safety Executive or the Fire Service. Neither of those organisations is responsible for setting policy however nor are they responsible for advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.


Safety Refuge


The refuge illustrated above is located in the space between two fire doors with the exit staircase through the unseen door on the left. A communication device is fitted to the wall on the right. A single person should be safe here for a short period during a fire emergency.

Fire fighting professionals have a very different view with regards to fire safety in buildings. They don't specifically want ramps, they want sprinkler systems. The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) explained that a sprinkler system removes the need to even evacuate a building at all, apart from the area effected by the fire.

The CFOA were keen to point out there is a common misconception with sprinkler systems in that they do not, upon activation, shower an entire building with water. Sprinklers only activate locally, where fire and/or smoke is detected, and because of their design, there is very little chance they can be set off accidentally.

Sprinklers offer a distinct safety advantage in the event of an emergency for individuals with mobility disabilities. The most dangerous factor in a fire emergency is smoke and heat. If you cannot get out of a particular area of a building then a sprinkler system will drastically reduce the buildup of both smoke and heat not only in the refuge area but throughout the entire area effected by any fire.

Station Manager Mark O'Meara from Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service told us;

"Sprinklers speak for themselves - there are no cases of multiple fire deaths occurring in buildings with working sprinkler systems where they have been appropriately designed, and have been correctly installed and maintained."
"Sprinklers not only provide incredible protection - they are like having a firefighter permanently on standby - but they are also allowing designers to build in more innovative ways, meaning more flexible spaces are being created"
"However, there is no legal requirement at present to install sprinklers in most of the buildings in England and Wales which are occupied and used by the most vulnerable people, who may have difficulty in evacuating quickly if there is a fire"

None of the recently constructed buildings for dance have been fitted with sprinklers or any other type of fire suppression system.

Again, Rambert Dance Company, at the time of writing, would not confirm if their new building would have a sprinkler system fitted. Such a system is not legally required.


Fire evacuation plans for people with disabilities, in fact all people within any public building, usually centre around what is known as a personal emergency egress plan (PEEP). The fire evacuation procedures for many large organisations are all pretty much the same. A paragraph we culled form the one for Leeds University states;

"The 'fire safety order' requires the responsible person to make provision for the safe evacuation of disabled people in the event of a fire. In cases where a disabled member of staff or student requires assistance it is necessary to provide a PEEP."

All well and good but the human factor is the potential downfall here. What if the person responsible for "helping" a wheelchair user is not there, what if they are on lunch, what if they forget, what if they themselves are badly hurt? Also, dance buildings, are general use facilities. That is, they are not used by the same people all the time so evacuation procedures become much more complex.

When we spoke to the designers of a relatively new dance building we asked them how multiple wheelchair using occupants of the building would get out in an emergency if they were all located on the upper floor of that building.

They told us that the evacuation procedure in such a circumstance was a "management" issue for the operators of the building. Again, the human factor is all important, it's a good job that human beings are not fallible, not even a little bit!

Although there are no documented cases of this happening we would imagine that if ten or more wheelchair users wanted to gain access to a particular space that was located on the upper floor of a building then such a request would be denied. Given low staffing numbers in arts facilities there would probably be insufficient staff to effectively evacuate that many people in a sufficiently swift amount of time.

Evacuation chairs, specially designed chairs that can slide down staircases, are only fitted, in most cases, on a "one chair per staircase" basis. In a scenario with ten people on one floor you would be in the almost farcical position of having to evacuate one person, run back up the stairs (with the chair) nine more times to get everybody out.

Of course "wheelchair user" is a generic term and doesn't relate strictly to the type of disability that a particular person may have. Each individual will have a specific amount of personal mobility when they are unable to use the wheelchair to move around.

A key component of the management plan to evacuate a building is knowing who is in there and where they are. Speaking from experience, we have managed to access dozens of dance building and theatres over the years without anybody knowing who we are or why we were there.

After all, we're not taking about breaching the CIA, we're talking about arts facilities.

Ancient Egyptian

We should stress the point that dance facilities and theatres are no different from any other building old or new anywhere in this country. All buildings are required by law to comply with strict fire safety rules. Nor are we suggesting that these dance facilities are combustible death traps whose occupants have a better than average chance of being reduced to cinders in the blink of an eye.

However, architects, much like anybody else working in a design orientated profession, create things to the specifications of their clients. If the client demands exit ramps from all floors for use in an emergency then the architects would almost certainly deliver that in the final design, they would figure out a way to get it done. Were the clients to demand sprinkler systems be fitted, even though they are not legally required, the architects would come up with a way to fit them.

After all, the ancient Egyptians used ramps to build the pyramids and sprinkler systems have been around since the early 19th century, we don't need any new science here.

So what we have here is not only a failure of design but an abject failure on the part of those commissioning these buildings to ask for accessible emergency exit provision for all users of their facility. The DCLG building regulations are very detailed but they told us that "there is nothing to prevent the designer/owner developing buildings that give an even higher standard."

What became apparent to us when researching these issues was that nothing short of specific, legally enforceable building regulations will make architects and their clients change their ways.

Ultimately, if a person using a wheelchair cannot get in and out of your building on their own, in an emergency or otherwise, then your building is not really accessible. Specific management plans, as suggested by one architect, are not a solution because true integration comes only when individual groups are not treated as a special class, or as far as this issue is concerned, an afterthought.

Updated: September 10th with quotes from Greater Manchester Fire Service

[ The Cube by Article19 on Flickr ]

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