Introducing Mike Elkerton MBE (CEO Access & Evacu8 Ltd & Chair of the NW England Access Association)
He is the Disability Advisor for IKEA (UK) Ltd, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Gulliver’s Theme Parks and the INTU Trafford Centre in Manchester. After 23 years of giving advice and guidance for greater access to the built environment he and his company are now concentrating on a new system to help disabled people with wayfinding and more importantly evacuation in the case of an emergency. In 2016 Mike Elkerton was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), by Her Majesty the Queen of England for his work in Disability Nationwide.
In this article he is sharing his thoughts on some evacuation and accessibility issues that need to be addressed. These issues are not only relevant for the United Kingdom, but count for many countries around the globe.
“Disability Access and Evacuation”
Disability Access and Evacuation has been at the forefront of media coverage during the last few months and I have serious concerns over procedures with regards to the evacuation of disabled people in an emergency.
It seems to me that very little thought has been given with regards to disabled people’s welfare in a terrorist or an emergency evacuation situation.
In the recent terrorist attacks, first at Manchester when apparently wheelchair users were corralled into a space that had no exit.
Then in London at the London Bridge attack, when people including disabled people were directed blindly away from the incident, not knowing where they were supposed to go to.
It seems that there were no provisions in place to provide information or instructions to these people as these situations unfolded.
The Grenfell tower block fire highlighted a host of issues, which represent fundamental flaws in the emergency regulations. This coupled with the constant reduction that the fire authorities have with regards to emergency planning and physical inspection of buildings. Appearing to me, that they are being systematically side lined out of the process.
The role of the fire service within the emergency evacuation planning has been reduced by shifting the responsibility onto building managers. They were tasked with the drawing up of plans and procedures for the evacuation of all, including those with disabilities, the buildings’ occupants. However, in my experience, very few plans included disabled people in the process and fell back on to go to the nearest refuge area and stay there. Only in very few were the ongoing evacuation of those in the refuge to the place of safety even considered.
Running parallel to this was the reduction in staffing available to inspect the effectiveness of those plans within the fire service.
Several weaknesses in the evacuation plans were, in my opinion, identified during the fire.
They were: The confusion around the ‘Stay Put’ policy, those that were lucky enough to be informed by the fire crews on site or use their own initiative to evacuate had to deal with several obstacles in order to exit the building. This policy relies on the efficacy of the fire doors and fire compartmentalisation of the building. This did not work in this situation where the fire was external to the building with inadequate external fire breaks.
The only stairwell had, apparently, inadequate emergency lighting and the evacuee’s vision was further reduced by thick black smoke.
It was made clear that disabled and elderly people were accommodated throughout the tower block. It is apparent that little thought was given as to how a person who could not manage stairs would escape from the building. For them the stay put policy was the only option or had to rely on the goodwill of other tenants to assist their evacuation.
The media vision of people being trapped on the eleventh floor screaming for help for over an hour on live TV was a shocking and very disturbing event to witness.
The Government promised a public inquiry on how this horrendous situation could have happened, however it would appear that the inquiry will concentrate on the cladding which is suspected of being the cause of the fire spread and not deal with any other issues including the concerns raised by the tenants a year prior to the fire.
In my opinion these issues that need investigating as a matter of priority in particular, was the placing the responsibility onto building managers a wise move especially when the role of the fire service was being reduced?
What arrangements could and should be put in place for those who rely on the lift in a building for accessing their flat? Invariably the lift goes off when the fire alarm is activated.
The whole evacuation policy and regulation need revisiting and making fit for purpose rather than as I think will happen where a blame culture will develop and a scape goat will be found.
Another of my major concerns is the long term ill-health effects which may arise as it is likely that asbestos was used in the construction of the building itself.
During the fire at the Grenfell Tower it was obvious that burning particles, possibly containing asbestos, were air born and would have fell on the surrounding areas of the building and spread by the wind to other parts of the capital.
Very few people wore breathing apparatus and safety masks, including the emergency services when they were resting after battling the inferno.
Emergency Services take a rest after fighting the inferno, adjacent to the building.
In the past my company has assisted in arranging high profile Conferences on ‘Emergency Evacuation and Competency’; The last was held at the Emirates Stadium in London in 2014.
Prior to that conference I helped arrange two conferences with the ‘Institute of Fire Officers’, on ‘Law & Legislation’ and the ‘Right to Evacuation’.
In March of this year 2017, a fellow director, Tony Rice and I were key-note speakers at Naidex, (The biggest disability exhibition in England) in Birmingham the subject being ‘The Right to Life and Evacuation of Disabled People’.
By arraigning these types of events it was a forgone conclusion, issues and incidents of this nature would arise at sometime in the future.
Therefore I personally feel there are a numbers of questions need to be answered with regards to the evacuation of ‘Disabled & Vulnerable People’.
Without a debate covering these serious issues, I feel that we will all have become complacent.