If you’re ever unfortunate enough to find yourself inside a burning building, your most natural impulse will be to escape as quickly as possible. However, for those who are disabled or mobility-impaired, it might actually be impossible to get out unaided.
Following the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, recommendations were made to create special emergency escape plans for residents who may require assistance in order to escape. But the government chose to go against these plans, leaving those in need wanting to know their reasoning.
The fire has left many mobility-impaired residents of high-rise accommodation worried every time they go to bed. What would happen if a fire were to take hold of their block of flats? How would they escape unaided? How would a wheelchair user evacuate the building, for example? These are genuine fears that many vulnerable people who live in high-rise flats suffer.
Right now, there is no legislation in place to ensure those people would be able to escape safely and, in fact, they are sometimes told to simply “stay put” and wait for help, an action that now must be an utterly terrifying thought for many.
That fear escalated when a proposal to make it compulsory for building proprietors to create personal emergency escape plans – known as PEEPs – was turned down by the government. It’s a move that many stakeholders find staggering when you consider that a total of 72 people lost their lives, including 15 disabled residents in the Grenfell Tower fire, on that dreadful evening of 14th June 2017.
The proposal to establish PEEPs was suggested in the first Grenfell Tower Inquiry report which investigated the circumstances of the fire, where no plans were in place whatsoever. The report actively encouraged the government to put legislation in place so that building proprietors must carry out Personal Emergency Evacuation Plans or PEEPs.
A PEEP is a customized plan between a person, who can’t get themselves out of a structure independently, and the individual liable for fire safety. It is frequently utilized by those with portability issues, such as mental illness, physical disability, or visual or hearing debilitations.
In its simplest form, it could include ensuring a deaf resident has an appropriate alarm. But crucially, it’s about ensuring quick and safe exit takes place, rather than leaving people to be rescued by the fire service when they arrive.
The inquiry concluded that the “stay put” advice – which suggests that it is for the most part more secure to remain inside a flat where the walls, floors, and doors are intended to contain a fire – had absolutely failed on the grounds that the ACM cladding had significantly fuelled the fire. Unfortunately, once the realisation that the “stay put” advice was ineffective, no time was left to help people escape.
Grenfell United, the survivors and bereaved families from the tower fire, summed it up by saying: “It left them with no personal escape plan and no means of escape. They didn’t stand a chance.”
Many disabled or mobility-impaired people are already familiar with PEEPs because they are a legal requirement in every workplace and failure to have one in place is a clear breach of the Equality Act 2010 and is considered to be discrimination.
However, the same legislation does not yet exist for domestic residential blocks and PEEPs are not required. Places of work and other public buildings are required by law to have escape plans and potentially specialist equipment in place, such as Evacuation Chairs, to aid those who are unable to use the stairs as a means of escape.
The Grenfell inquiry’s suggestion gave hope to those mobility-impaired individuals. A subsequent meeting supported the inquiry’s discoveries as 83% of respondents – including building proprietors and development organizations – concurred PEEPs ought to be in place.
But the government announced it would “propose to deliver against the Grenfell Tower Inquiry” and the consultation, on the matter of PEEPs.
According to the BBC, Georgie Hulme, co-founder of Claddag (an organisation fighting for PEEPs to be made mandatory) said “We are utterly appalled, why undertake any consultation or public inquiry, if the results or recommendations are just ignored?”
The government referred to practicalities as the obstacle behind executing PEEPs. It said it would require “staffing up” structures to guarantee the arrangement is completed, however that would cost about £21,900 per building each month.
It also added that just one individual member of staff would be highly unlikely to successfully evacuate every mobility-impaired resident and another alternative – relying on neighbours to assist – could possibly cause tensions between disabled and non-disabled residents, as well as suggesting that attempts to evacuate disabled people before the fire service arrived on-site might cause delay for non-disabled residents, trying to escape.
Sarah Rennie, Georgie’s co-founder of Claddag, says, “We’re talking about whether somebody is going to lose their life for the sake of a couple of hundred pounds or a conversation, a lot of disabled people across the country are very frightened.”
Sarah also says, while some might question why disabled people would choose to live in tower blocks, there is often little choice when it comes to housing stock and affordability. People might also choose to live as close to work as possible or near their support network.
Subsequent to ruling against the arrangement for PEEPs, the Home Office has been in discussions about an “alternative package” known as Emergency Evacuation Information Sharing (EEIS).
This would risk assessment by the fire service with the building manager involved. Any safety features which are recommended, like handrails, would generally be financed by the resident.
However, it would only apply to structures surveyed as “higher risk”. London Fire Brigade says roughly 1,000 structures in the capital, generally, half, are classed as higher risk. Any remaining buildings would continue to use “stay put”.
Sarah says: “This concept is really worrying. The responsibility is being passed to the fire service. It’s not an evacuation, it’s going to be rescued.”
She is also concerned about sharing sensitive health data and the fact that while you wait for the fire service to help you “your chance of survival drops significantly” when an evacuation plan would already have you outside.
The Home Office states that the average time from a 999 call being received to the first vehicle arriving at a fire in England last year was 7 minutes and 3 seconds.
Sarah also adds that while her notes might explain she has osteoporosis and needs to be lifted in a certain way the nature of the emergency means the fire service won’t be able to consider such intricacies on arrival and she could be injured.
“The fire service in a rescue is frankly not going to care because they’re going to try and save my life,” she says. “This is unworkable and it’s not fair to the fire service.”
With its new plan out on consultation until August, the government says it has so far incorporated 21 of the 46 recommendations from The Grenfell Inquiries into law, including setting minimum frequency checks on fire doors.
A Home Office spokesperson added: “Our fire reforms will go further than ever before to protect vulnerable people.
But campaigners already see this as a U-turn after Boris Johnson made a pledge to parliament in 2019 in which he stated: “I can assure the house and all those affected by the Grenfell tragedy that where action is called for action will follow.”
While the commercial industry has long had the guidelines in place to address fire safety and the means of escape for all those within their buildings, the domestic high-rise sector is only just starting on that road. Sadly, there is no quick fix. It will take time, negotiations and some compromise before disabled and mobility-impaired residents begin to feel confident that they too have the same chance to escape a burning building as their abled-bodied neighbours.