Dealing With A Disability During A Fire Emergency


As a business owner, or someone with responsibility for premises, do you have an adequate plan for dealing effectively with people with a disability, in the event of an evacuation during a fire emergency?

According to the last Census, approximately one in five people (20.6%) in Northern Ireland reported that their day to day activities were limited because of a long standing health problem or disability.  People may be affected by more than one disability.  Disabilities can be broadly categorised into five main areas, each of which have considerations which should be taken on board when designing a fire alarm system.

A thorough fire risk assessment (to include people at high risk due to disability) needs to be undertaken by a competent person, leading to a series of control measures to nullify the risks to these people and others.

The main disability categories for consideration are:-

  • Mobility – People with mobility issues may use one or more devices to assist or improve their own mobility, for example crutches or wheelchairs. These mobility aids have some of the most obvious and restrictive access problems – manoeuvring through narrow spaces, negotiating steps or changes in level at the entrance/ exit point of a building, climbing steps or slopes. Generally speaking, if a person cannot physically negotiate, use, or operate some part or element of a standard building access/egress system – for example stairs or door locks/latches – then that persons’ ability to evacuate the building in an emergency is affected.  Mobility may also be affected by respiratory impairments, for example people may generally be able to use the egress system, but are restricted due to dizziness or breathing difficulties. Those people may require rest breaks during an evacuation.


  • Partial or Total Vision Loss – People with a visual disability will have difficulty reading small print, negotiating dimly lit spaces or may not tolerate high glare. There is a risk that a person with a visual impairment would miss a visual cue, such as a new obstruction that occurred during an emergency event. A person will have their ability to evacuate in an emergency compromised if standard building egress/access system displayed information, like signage, requires vision in order to be used or understood.


  • Partial or Total Hearing Loss – People with partial hearing often use hearing aids which amplify and clarify available sounds. Echo, reverberation and background noise can distort hearing aid transmission. People who are deaf or hard of hearing and who rely on lip reading for information must be able to clearly see the the face of the person who is speaking.  If they rely on sign language, this may be adversely affected by poor lighting. Having equipment that is exclusively auditory, such as fire alarms and public address systems could affect a person’s ability to evacuate in a emergency. It is also important to consider areas where people with hearing loss might be in isolation, such as toilets, changing facilities etc, and the limitations of audible only systems in these instances.


  • Cognitive Disabilities – Cognitive impairments prevent a person from using or accessing building features due to their inability to process or understand the information necessary to use those features.  These conditions are wide ranging but all result in some decreased or impaired level in the ability to process or understand the information provided.


  • Speech Disabilities – Speech impairments prevent a person from using or accessing information or building features that require the ability to speak. This may apply to emergency phone systems in areas of refuge, elevators or similar locations.

It may be that someone with a risk profile may need assistance in case of an emergency to get around the building and exit where required, it is important for the person who is providing the assistance to ascertain the level of assistance they will be required to give.  This may take the form of –

  • Guidance – explanation of how and where to go to get to the usable circulation path or ultimately guiding the person through or to the usable circulation path.
  • Minor Physical Effort – Offering an arm to assist the person to/through the usable circulation path or opening the door(s) in the usable circulation path.
  • Major Physical Effort – Operating a stair-descent device, carrying or assisting in the carry of a wheelchair down stairs or carrying a person down the stairs.

If you require any fire alarm design assistance to cater for the wide range of disabilities described above, get in touch with our Design Support Team by emailing

Dealing With A Disability During A Fire Emergency Emergency Communication Systems