Fire Evacuation Schemes for Everyone
Recently my company, which specialises in writing policies and procedures, moved premises. We engaged a professional fire safety service to advise us on how to make our building comply with fire safety regulations and prepare our Fire Evacuation Scheme. When we received the scheme, I printed and read it, mainly with a view to updating our online knowledge base. As a result, I’m confident in our scheme, but concerned at the document’s accessibility.
So how can fire evacuation schemes be more user-friendly for all audiences? I relay my experience navigating the document and explore blind users’ experiences of fire evacuation schemes before ending with some tips.
As a professional document creator, I was astonished by the MS Word file we received containing our fire evacuation scheme. It had been created by an expert in fire safety, but not by an expert in writing, or publishing, or in creating accessible content. There were several technical shortcomings in the document, but the most glaring “missing features” were, seemingly trivially, page numbers and a table of contents.
Navigating the evacuation scheme
I pictured myself as Chief Warden in an emergency, my mind a panicky blank, with the printed version of the 30-page document, trying to look up any of the pertinent information I might need. For example:
- The fire service asks me about dangerous goods on site.
- A site visitor in a wheelchair can’t get downstairs and we have to leave them somewhere safe, but where?
- Everyone seems to be in the assembly area. What do I do next?
Without a table of contents or page numbering, and presumably under some stress and urgency, how am I to navigate swiftly to the piece of information I need? The obvious answer is to strip the document back to its bare essentials for use in an emergency. The Fire Evacuation Scheme we received did also include a 1-pager for the walls of the building, but it doesn’t contain all the information a warden would need. So, the full scheme needs to be organised so that it’s fit for purpose when it’s needed.
Those missing features – page numbers and a table of contents – seem so basic it’s easy to underestimate their importance, and they are “universal design” features of a document, meaning that all users benefit from them, not just one particular user type.
I thought about what their absence might mean to a blind person using a screen reader to listen to the document. Screen-reading software reads a table of contents and makes it possible for a blind reader to navigate straight to the information they need. Without a table of contents, a blind user has to listen to the whole document until they find that information [i].
Anyone entering a workplace with an approved fire scheme is meant to know the details of the scheme. That’s why there are notices attached to the walls detailing escape routes, emergency phone numbers, and building safe zones. In addition, many organisations include the safety scheme as part of employee induction and perform regular drills.
What is it like for a blind person being inducted into a building? If I’m blind, I can’t see the fire scheme on the wall. Does anyone think to brief me, or do they assume that there will always be a sighted colleague available if there’s an emergency? What if I’m coming in to the building after-hours, or working in a part of the building that is away from other people? [ii]
Is there a version of the fire scheme that I can read, either in Braille or via a screen-reader?
I wondered whether the fire service had thought about blind users, and if they hadn’t, whether it matters. Then I looked up the definition of universal design, which makes it very clear that it does – with both buildings and documents:
Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability. An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it. This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population. It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits. By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples' needs. Simply put, universal design is good design. [iii]
I asked my friend and colleague Kevin Prince, an accessibility consultant at Access1in5, to contact his network of blind users and ask for their experience of emergency evacuation schemes, and their opinion about the importance of this information to them. Several people responded, basing their comments on their experiences which included being:
- employees or regular visitors to a workplace (or other facility, such as a church or sports complex), and/or
- temporary guests at a facility such as a hotel.
The information needs of each use case are potentially slightly different, and my original question was more focussed on the first scenario, although both are important.
Use case: employee or regular visitor to a workplace (or other facility)
In this scenario, people go to a specific place regularly, often because it’s their workplace. From the comments I received, it seems that some places do a pretty good job of ensuring everyone knows the drill, but others don’t. Here are some comments from blind users (abridged and edited for flow).
“My experience is that the large Government agency for which I work doesn't think [this information needs to be accessible]. Accessible instructions will mean different things to different people. For me [it means] Braille [which is] not provided.”
“I am pleased to say our church provides print and large print [safety] instructions. We don’t have any Braille readers at church just now.”
“I remember having a good argument long ago when I worked at the University of Xxxxx. They told me I had to wait for a [warden] to come and get me. Of course I said I would probably be out faster than most of them, especially if the place was full of smoke. We ended up needing the fire brigade to come in and we even had some mediation but I won my argument that time.”
“I would have thought that knowing how to evacuate a building we work in is an essential part of our safety in case of any emergency. That is not a “nice to have” it is more than “common decency” even; it is a right to feel safe in our workplaces.”
Use case: Temporary guests at a facility
In this scenario, we’re discussing visitors who might be staying in a strange location for the first and last time. It’s clear from these comments that the experience in some facilities is variable. There is common agreement that blind individuals should take responsibility for asking for the procedure. Equally, there is the need to have a version of the procedure available for blind users to read. Once again, I’ve abridged the comments.
“At Xxxxx City Council we have a visitor system called “Who’s on location?” where visitors …are asked if they need assistance if there is an evacuation. If an evacuation occurs the wardens for the floor where the visitor requiring assistance is, are notified about the visitors who need assistance and the staff they are visiting are meant to assist and remain with their guest.”
“It’s worth remembering that in a lot of accommodation places – hotels, etc – the evacuation process is printed and placed on the back of the room door. In a perfect world the rooms for those with disabilities should have a folder with the info in Braille, large print and easy read.”
“I was buddied up with a person who had a guide dog, giving us a room with an outside door. When the fire alarm went off around midnight, I got my buddy, still half asleep and screaming, plus the guide dog and me, out that outside door. When everything was over, we were asked why we didn't get down to the front door. I would never have found it, plus my poor buddy was petrified.”
“I have rarely known what the evacuation process is in a hotel. I don't know if they record on their register if they have disabled customers though I think once someone told me they did. I have only been involved in one evacuation during the night in a hotel and it was quite interesting to see how we all got out as there were a number of blind conference attendees at the time. I think one person actually hid under her bed too frightened to leave, which is a concern… I think having accessible fire evacuation instructions in unfamiliar environments would be useful even if it is just a verbal bit of information.”
“Visiting people in privately owned or rented apartments or body corporates may not have the same level of evacuation processes. However, after the recent fire in London, no doubt apartment dwellers will be thinking through and making an evacuation plan for at least their own apartment and its occupants.”
“A few months ago a number of us were at a MSD [meeting] when a fire alarm sounded. This brought up several issues for me. The main one is that no one seemed to take charge. Also, there was a lack of information given to us about what was happening.”
“I stayed at the CQ Hotel in Wellington last year. When I checked in I was informed they have a VIP Register on which is listed people on site who have indicated they have hearing/mobility/sight assistance requirements during an evacuation and that I would be prioritised for assistance in an evacuation. Further, I was escorted to my room and read the evacuation procedure from the information on the back of the door before being orientated to the room. I thought this was really good practice but it also taught me something. I now ask to have the same information when I go anywhere else that I might need to be evacuated from.“
What does this mean for your organisation?
I’m sure that we all have a view on how necessary it is to have inclusive, accessible instructions in a workplace, and our perspective might differ, depending on our own lived experience. Assuming that universal accessibility is something you’ve never really considered before, and you’re responsible for the fire evacuation scheme for a building, how difficult is it to design your documentation so that it is maximally accessible?
Make sure your evacuation scheme is accessible
Whether you’re issuing a document in Word, HTML, InDesign, PDF, or some other format, there are basic design principles to learn and apply. Although you might not have experience of voice-over software, many blind and visually-impaired people rely on these tools to read, and they need a correctly-prepared document.
Applying universal design principles will make the document better for everyone, not just the blind or visually impaired. Here are the basics [iv] to focus on:
- Write in plain language
- Use styles, especially for headings
- Use page numbers
- Put alt text on your images – but explain, don’t interpret
- Write unique, descriptive links
- Be careful with colour and contrast
- Don’t create the PDF by scanning a printed scheme
To learn more about these concepts, see the Webinar Archive on the TechCommNZ website ( https://techcomm.nz/Category?Action=View&Category_id=488).
Provide your evacuation scheme on your website
These days we’re used to booking meals and accommodation online, getting directions to the hotel, and reading the menu before we arrive at a restaurant. Consider adding your evacuation scheme to your website – in an accessible format – for visitors to read in advance.
Arrange a Braille version of an evacuation scheme
I asked Kevin Prince how you go about producing a document in Braille. He said that it’s as easy as creating your document as normal then finding a Braille embossing service – something Google can help with. These providers use special software to optimise and check the document, then post it back.
He also pointed out that you can only fit 40 cells across a standard Braille page and 25 lines of Braille down the page – so the 30 page Fire Evacuation Scheme would need to be significantly abridged. Only a small proportion of blind users read Braille, but for those who do, if your document isn’t available in Braille, they are seriously disadvantaged.
For more details on how to prepare a document for Braille, see the Essentials of Braille Formatting on the Braille Authority of New Zealand Aotearoa Trust (BANZAT) website [v].
Anyone whose job includes creating documents – or buildings – needs to make sure they are meeting the needs of the largest possible group of users. Technology supports documentation that the blind and visually-impaired can access, but as document creators we are responsible for preparing the documents according to best practice. Done well, the resulting document is usable for everyone. Done badly, and it raises the question of why the document needs to exist at all, if not all people can access the information it contains.
I’d like to thank Kevin Prince, Sarah Maclean, and Earnsy Liu for their help putting this article together.
[i] There are several other considerations to making a document fully accessible. See Make your Word documents accessible , the Microsoft guide available from https://support.office.com/en-us/article/make-your-word-documents-accessible-d9bf3683-87ac-47ea-b91a-78dcacb3c66d and Content provider's introduction and index , from Ireland’s National Disability Authority http://universaldesign.ie/technology-ict/web-accessibility-techniques/content-provider-s-introduction-and-index/
[ii]And what about Deaf people not hearing the alarm? While outside the scope of this article, it’s an important safety consideration. See http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/7723515/Building-code-change-worries-deaf-MP
[iii] Taken from Ireland’s National Disability Authority, What is Universal Design? http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design/.
[iv] Taken from Seeing our way - Accessibility for the web and print , a TechCommNZ webinar by Sarah Maclean and Harriet Kay ( https://techcomm.nz/Category?Action=View&Category_id=664).
[v] See Essentials of Braille Formatting , http://www.banzat.org.nz/publications/braille-codes-and-formats.