We generally don’t like to think about worst-case scenarios, about how our rest home or hospital would cope in a fire or earthquake. Getting out of a multi-storey building in an emergency situation is a frightening enough prospect for able-bodied people, let alone for the elderly or disabled.
This very conundrum has concerned Allan Armstrong for many years. Years ago, Allan and his wife Shona managed a rest home in Opotiki before running Accessible Kiwi Tours, a tour company specializing in helping people with disabilities visit New Zealand tourist destinations.
In the early 1990s, Allan transformed a wheelchair of his own into a chair that could be converted into a stretcher, allowing people to visit hard-to-reach places like the Waitomo Caves. He toyed with the idea of patenting it, but the arrival of OSH put it in the too-hard basket.
It wasn’t until a holiday to the United Kingdom that the Armstrong’s first saw the EvacChair, at the York Locomotive Museum. The very next day they went to the EvacChair factory in Birmingham and secured the distribution rights of the chair to New Zealand.
Since then it has gone from strength to strength, with an increasing number of facilities adopting the chair. In a demonstration, the chair was used to evacuate someone from the Sky Tower in less than 12 minutes. Unsurprisingly, the uptake of EvacChair has been strong in Christchurch facilities, where staff have witnessed firsthand just how difficult it is to move people out of a high building in an emergency situation. Before the earthquakes Christchurch Hospital had one EvacChair, now it has more than 40 chairs.
The recent residential tower fire in London is another tragic reminder of how important it is to have evacuation measures in place for people with disabilities.
Allan says that while the New Zealand Fire Service has been impressed by the chair, it has been reluctant to fully embrace it and roll out training for its staff on its use. Apparently this would indicate a shift in focus to evacuating people, a responsibility that is supposed to primarily rest with the owners of the building.
Just this month, New Zealand’s fire service expanded its remit to become Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ). Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne said the change will allow us to “address the changing needs of our communities and the expanding demands on our emergency service personnel”.
Despite the change, it is unlikely the onus of evacuation will shift to FENZ.
Meanwhile, Allan fears New Zealand’s fire safety and evacuation regulations do not adequately meet the needs of the disabled community.
“We have among the most discriminatory fire regulations in the world,” says Allan.
He points out that the Fire Safety and Evacuation of Building Regulations 2006 state that all occupants are to be accounted for and able to get to a place, or places of safety. If a building has no sprinklers, these places of safety must be outside the building. The regulations also state that an evacuation scheme must designate at least one place in the building where persons with a disability are to gather if they are unable to evacuate. Allan points out that this assembly point is not even designated a “place of safety”.
So against a backdrop of weak regulations, Allan is hopeful that rest homes, hospitals and owners of other multi-storey buildings that house frail older adults or people with disabilities will do the right thing by their residents and ensure they have an EvacChair ready and waiting.
Of course, no organization likes to part with money for a ‘what if?’ scenario. EvacChairs are currently around $2,000 each. Training to use the chair is between 75 and 100 dollars per person depending on numbers.
But, in today’s world can anyone afford not to be prepared? Evacuation procedures should be more than theoretical, tick-box policies for the auditors – they should be the roadmap for getting everyone out safe and alive, regardless of their level of ability.