Evacuation Chairs: a Beginner's Guide
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Evacuation Chairs: a Beginner's Guide

If you have a lift in your building, the chances are that you also need an evacuation chair. Using lifts in the event of a fire is generally forbidden, but you must ensure that all people – regardless of their mobility – can still exit safely in the event of an emergency.

What is an evacuation chair?

An evacuation chair – or sometimes a mat or sledge – helps people with mobility issues to get down stairs quickly in the event in an emergency.

Who needs an evacuation chair?

It’s not only people in wheelchairs for whom you need to provide an evacuation chair. Others that may need them include:

  • Visually impaired people
  • People with balance issues
  • Women in the later stages of pregnancy
  • The elderly and infirm
  • People with joint problems, especially in the hips or knees
  • Anyone who’d struggle to descend stairs quickly

How do evacuation chairs work?

Most evacuation chairs use the weight of the person in the chair to apply downward pressure to a brake-belt system, which ensures the chair moves down the stairs at a controlled speed. When arriving at ground level, the chairs can usually be used as wheelchairs to further aid a swift exit to safety.

All evacuation chairs in the UK require at least one person to operate the chair, assisting the person with the mobility issues that is sat within it. Many chairs require two operators. Training is important with evacuation chairs. Using one can be nerve-wracking, especially with the added pressure of an emergency!

Evacuation chairs vs. evacuation mats and sledges

Evacuation mats and sledges don’t have any built-in speed controls. They are fully reliant on the strength and agility of the operators to control the rate of descent as they slide down the stairs.

Unlike evacuation chairs, evacuation mats and sledges are at ground level. Depending on the nature of the mobility issues for the evacuee, this can present additional challenges for them and for operators when entering and exiting the mat/sledge, and can slow-down exit from the building as the evacuee must first get off of the mat/sledge before making their way to safety.

However, mats and sledges are cheap and flexible, so they may be the better choice for you depending on your circumstances and the people you're assisting.

Evacuation chairs and the law

Are evacuation chairs a legal requirement? This is something that should have been identified in your fire risk assessment, but the answer is: It depends.

If, at any time, you have people in your building that would find it difficult to descend a flight of stairs at speed, then yes, you need an evacuation chair or other aid, and operators trained to use it.

As the building owner or manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that everyone can exit the building in the event of a fire, taking account of lifts that will be out of action.

How many evacuation chairs do you need?

The answer to “How many evacuation chairs do I need?” should be in your fire risk assessment because it depends on the number people that the chairs are intended to help. For example, a care home or hospice will probably need greater provision than an office. It also depends on the nature of your building. For example, if your building has refuge points or places of relative safety, your Fire Emergency Evacuation Plans may allow you to re-use a single evacuation chair to help several people exit your building.

Where should evacuation chairs be located

Again, this is a matter for your Fire Risk Assessment. If you need evacuation chairs, then they need to be located wherever your potential users might be. As a guide, the chairs should, as a minimum, be located at the top of every stairwell to allow for a scenario in which one or more stairwells is out of action due to the emergency incident.

Buying an evacuation chair

Cost is always a consideration in buying evacuation chairs, but it should not be your only consideration.

Who will operate it?

Some chairs rely on upper body strength to control them. To minimise the risk of an accident in which the evacuee is dropped down the stairs, consider who will be moving the chair, and what they can reasonably manage.

If you’re relying on the same operators to move several people down the stairs, remember that the operators may be tired from earlier evacuations, and take this into account.

If you can, try the chairs before you buy.

How many people does the chair take to operate it?

Some chairs require one operator and some require two. You must train all operators in how to use the chair, so think about ongoing training costs before you buy. We recommend that training is refreshed annually so that you stay prepared for an emergency.

Remember that if a chair requires two operators, you may need to train four people so that you are covered for staff absence and leavers.

Where will it be used?

How wide is your narrowest escape route? Make sure that you arm yourself with this information before you shop so that you can compare the turning circles of the chairs you are considering.

See if your retailer will allow you to trial the chair in your building before you buy.

Is it easy to use?

In an emergency, your operators will be under stress and will need to act quickly to get the evacuee (and themselves) to safety. The chair needs to be quick and simple to set-up, and easy to use on the descent. Avoid fiddly or complicated chairs.

How does it feel to sit in the chair?

Emergency evacuations are distressing, so it’s important that the evacuee feels secure in the chair to avoid delays caused by panic. If your potential evacuees have conditions which cause them pain, then consider comfort as well. Equally, if your potential evacuees are obese or larger than average in build, the chair will need to be big and strong enough to accommodate them.

When you review the chairs, sit in them yourself.

  • Which makes you feel most secure?
  • Which is most comfortable?
  • Which has the widest seat?
  • Which has the greatest weight tolerance?

How to use an evacuation chair

Online training and instruction manuals can only give you pointers on using your chair. To ensure your people are both confident and competent in the face of an emergency, they need to practice using the chair, ideally in your own building.

Using an evacuation chair can be stressful. That’s why our course first builds confidence through practice with a life-like weighted mannequin, before trainees experience what it’s like in the chair, and practice evacuating one another. Learn more about our evacuation chair course.

For help and advice on evacuation chairs, get in touch!

We offer fire safety consultation, fire risk assessments and a range of fire safety training courses including evacuation chair training. To discuss your fire safety concerns, contact our founder Jason Sugden on 01329 511995, or email him direct: jason@benfieldfire.co.uk


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