Buildings are unprepared for increasing disability rates in Canada, raising concerns among accessibility advocates who see the built environment as a laggard when it comes to fire safety.
The rate of disability changes dramatically as people age, and this year there are more Canadians 65 and older than under the age of 14. By 2030, it’s expected that this age bracket will make up almost 30 per cent of the county’s population. The number of people with disabilities is set to skyrocket. Disabilities also transcend age and many people don’t report having one. They range from vision and hearing loss, developmental and mental disabilities to mobility and body function.
A seminar at PM Expo reviewed how universal design must have a broader approach when it comes to saving the lives of occupants and their clients. Even non-English speakers in a community are at risk during a fire when faced with information they cannot understand. The speakers, Martin Day, president and co-owner of Safety Media, and Thea Kurdi, associate at DesignABLE environments, offered resources on accessibility in the built environment and how property managers can support people with disabilities before and during a fire event.
The duo offered ten tips for accessible fire safety practices. Here are several highlights from the discussion.
1. Seconds matter
When a fire breaks out in a building, seconds, not minutes, matter. Interior finishes in buildings are now more toxic, whether it’s a desk or table made from cardboard stuck together with glue or foam couches, causing fire to move faster than ever before.
2. You are required to act unless you can show undue hardship
Understanding accessibility from a legal context can be daunting. Canada has moved from an era of exclusion, where people with disabilities were a burden to society, to what Kurdi calls an era of integration and inclusion, where “people are starting to recognize that a diversity of changing abilities can happen to anyone over their lifetime.”
“Accessibility is like the law in the wild west,” she noted. “Every town has an additional set of accessibility requirements, which leads to confusion.”
In Ontario, there are municipal standards and requirements under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA); however, the Ontario Human Rights Code has primacy over these laws. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, failure to provide for accessibility in the short term can result in a human rights complaint. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has reported that if someone makes an Ontario Human Rights complaint against a building, an owner is expected to do more, unless they can prove they would go bankrupt in the process.
“Unfortunately we don’t know what more looks like because no one has defined it,” said Kurdi. “It’s an interesting challenge, with advocacy groups asking the government to do a better job defining how to make a building accessible to the point of undue hardship, along with protecting them from Ontario Human Rights Code complaints when they thought they were doing the right thing by following the laws.”
3. Building codes and standards will tell you what needs to be done
Several standards were created under the AODA to help property managers make Ontario accessible by 2025. The Information and Communication Standard focuses on signage and helps satisfy the need for dignity and equality. Customer service is also a factor when thinking about providing accessible services. At the end of this year, the AODA requires every business to submit an accessibility plan, which should provide access for service animals and support people and notice for temporary disruption of services. Public emergency information should be made accessible, along with quickly establishing a process for receiving and responding to feedback and training for staff and contact workers.
The Design of Public Spaces Standard includes implementing visual and tactile notifications, among other guidelines.
Areas of Refuge
An area of refuge is a fire safety equity place which could be part of a stairwell. It should allow for two-way communication and space for two wheelchairs in every exit stair. Elevator lobbies, which are smoke proof, are good spots in older buildings that don’t have room in exits stairs. There are many signage requirements around identifying these areas.
“With elevators not in use, tragic accidents have occurred in aging homes because there were no areas of refuge,” said Kurdi. The areas don’t have to be elaborate, but should offer a protected area in a space where people can be identified and called for help.”
Designated supervisory staff have control over the elevators until the fire department arrives. Depending on the size of the building, they may be able to evacuate some people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get out. After the 9/11 attacks, 25 per cent of the surviving occupants said they benefitted from having access to an elevator or would have. The presence of emergency elevators are slowly gaining ground, but more traction is expected in the next few years.
Develop and find accessible means of egress
Exits in older buildings weren’t designed to be accessible, but their location needs to be identified, along with knowing what exits are accessible at ground level. The building code has changed to include a visual alarm as part of the auditory alarm system, and bed shaker smoke alarms help people feel an alarm.
People with disabilities must rely on others as an alternative to elevators. Many don’t want to leave expensive equipment and assistive devices behind, making an exit even more difficult. The NIST Investigation into the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Centre showed that having a mobility impairment or assisting someone who did were among the factors that increased the likelihood of death.
4. There is a large market requiring accessibility
In Canada, 1,000 people turn 65 every day. The population of a building is changing, along with disability rates, which are not always accurate.
In Ontario, 1.8 million people are willing to report they have a disability; however, 70 per cent of these disabilities are invisible and many go unreported or are temporary, such as a broken leg.
“Instead of thinking about these special people we are going to be nice enough to help, why don’t we think about the lifetime changing needs and abilities we have for all of us,” said Kurdi.
5. There is a business case you can write for your specific situation
Property managers have a lot of responsibilities, such as ensuring a business continues to make money. The question they have to answer is can they market a building that has better safety and increase performance factors, said Day. Looking at different age groups and people within the continuum of accessibility offers a marketable opportunity. Tenant safety and increasing tenant satisfaction and engagement are other benefits.
Legal risks often outweigh the benefits. Building owners can face Ontario Human Rights Tribunal fines in a public court of up to $50,000. Risk in one building can also spread across a portfolio.
“The press isn’t going to forget about the portfolio when they talk about the building,” said Day. All buildings can take steps to improve accessibility and fire and life safety, reducing both legal and regulatory risks. Tenants are starting to expect this.”
Smaller, short-term investments can improve accessibility, such as modernizing signage, changing sprinklers, modifying a lobby and changing an egress path from a construction point of view. These updates shouldn’t take away from all the other work a property must undergo.
6. A fire safety plan is for everyone
An accessible fire safety plan? All buildings that require a fire safety plan — all determined by building code and classification of the building — have a persons-required special assistance list, that the property manager is required to keep up to date.
When the fire department arrives, they retrieve the list and information from the plan and start from there. However, most people won’t confirm their disabilities so they wouldn’t be on the list. Neither would building visitors with disabilities. There are individual fire safety plans that can be written that account for a specific disability for a specific person and “try to bring everything together in one continuum.”
7. Inclusive evacuation planning and drills can help save everyone’s life
One of the best ways to make sure a building is ready if something goes wrong is to engage an inclusive evacuation planning and drills. Invite people with disabilities to tell you what they think. See how it works. Turn off all the elevators and see how people are going to get out and challenge your tenants to engage in the plan.
“It’s an opportunity, if you practice it from an accessible point of view, to improve the plan for everyone,” said Day. “Everyone needs to get out, but if we work all together, we can make it better for everybody.”
8. Accessible evacuation maps can help save critical time
During the presentation, it was revealed that there are few building with accessible evacuation maps. Most include every detail about the building, such as closets, washrooms, exits and doors, but should use limited but important information.
“They have a ton of text,” Day noted. “I would challenge anyone in an emergency to read that; some of them are really hard to follow; so make it simple.”
Maps should be tactile and use Canadian braille. The CSA B651 standard highlights type one where all letters are written out, rather than type two: contracted braille, which is a more sophisticated braille used in the United States. The maps should be placed in a high-traffic location and be large enough to read. Day suggests approaching it from the perspective of a visitor and see how easy it is to exit and understand what is happening.
Signage is one of the cheapest ways to update a fire safety plan, but requires a lot of thinking. CSA B651 – Accessible Design for the Built Environment, outlines best practices for signage. These include using a consistent style and location (overhead and wall mounted) throughout a building. Font should be san serif, upper and lower case, high contrast and a minimum 25 millimetres (mm) in height. Avoid shadows and glare that often arises from materials like stainless steel. Use tactile, braille and pictograms for regulatory, warning and identification signs, with text raised between 0.8 mm and 1.5 mm. Pictograms should have at least 150 mm in field height. Wall-mounted tactile signs should have a centre-line 1,500 mm from the floor and a leading vertical edge 150 mm from the door jamb. They should also use Canadian braille.
Accessible exits clearly marked with both braille and tactile are not currently in the code. Make sure areas of refuge are clearly differentiated; it doesn’t help if someone cannot find the refuge. Language barriers are a “fairly easy problem to solve” with the use of quality response codes (QR codes) that link to an accessible version of a web page.
10. Go beyond the minimum. Get help if needed
“We’re not recommending massive changes to a building; we’re recommending that you rethink fire safety as being accessible and consider what you can do to make it more accessible for people of all abilities and disabilities,” said Day.
Low-cost options for improvement and fire safety practices are continuing to evolve very quickly. Getting help when needed will help keep tabs on changes. With that in mind, fire departments like Toronto’s are becoming more aggressive and far more likely to lay charges if fire safety isn’t up to standard.