Ron Koorm FRICS
Retired access consultant and building surveyor
What consideration is made for disabled persons when being considered for the flats in high-rise residential housing? Clearly, if you are a leasehold purchaser, you have more responsibility to ensure the flat is suited to your needs. If you are a social tenant, then it is up to the Local Authority, Housing Association or similar body, as to whether that flat might be suitable, in conjunction with discussion of the applicant. But what assessment is made to ensure say, a blind person, or a disabled person with a cognitive disability, or a wheelchair-user, can get out of the block in an emergency, in sufficient time. That assumes that there have been fire tests for evacuation with similar levels of disability, monitored by the management and feedback provided.
Ah, you say, but we have a raft of technical standards and codes of practice, from Part ‘B’ Building Regulations, and the approved documents, to BS 9999 and many others. But this is all really based on limited research. Most people vary in height, weight, size, mobility, disability, understanding of signage and of language etc., which might affect egress times in emergency situations. There are of course, GEEPS (General Emergency Evacuation Plans), and PEEPS, (Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans), which managers need to know about, to assess the needs of disabled people, and have been around for years, based on specialist codes of practice and in Fire Risk Assessments. But these are not that widely applied, in my opinion.
An architect and expert in inclusive design, who I respect greatly, has stated that he would be saddened if mobility-impaired people and wheelchair-users were restricted from occupying flats and maisonettes in high rise residential blocks because he is looking for a truly inclusive society. The great views that sometimes come with high rise flats can be beneficial and improve well-being, if the block is well-managed.
If cladding installation on a high-rise block, or even a medium rise block, is so flawed, that non-disabled people perish in a fire to any degree then there is probably a high likelihood that disabled persons above a particular floor level, relevant to the source of the fire, will also probably perish, due to their physical condition and health.
So while we all wait for the outcome of the Grenfell Inquiry, can we in the meantime be sure that disabled people, at least, have been carefully considered as residential occupants and as visitors to high-rise and medium-rise blocks, as regards adequate time and process, to evacuate in an emergency? If there is a ‘stay-put’ policy, who made the assessment that is a robust policy and has it been reviewed periodically? How would you communicate with a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in a fire where the “Stay Put” policy is in place?
Some people become disabled over time, and their condition may well change, and deteriorate. This can have an effect, on the evacuation process in an emergency. A friend of mine has macular degeneration, which affects one eye, and is becoming worse. He is worrying about the condition affecting his other eye, which will then completely affect his lifestyle. If he visits someone in a high-rise residential block, who then assesses his needs as a visitor for evacuation in an emergency?
We need to change that approach. PEEPS and GEEPS are there for a purpose. Use them effectively, or be prepared to be in front of a coroner, answering serious questions about systemic failure. They are not the only answer, however.
This is a complex area. Even if the findings and recommendations of the Grenfell Fire Inquiry are comprehensive who will be able to guarantee those recommendations will be applied in good time across the UK, to high-rise residential buildings, and protecting the safety of more vulnerable occupants and visitors?
Contributor: Ron Koorm is a retired access consultant and building surveyor