We need to talk about emergency evacuation for the disabled
Staying put is not always the best strategy, as a past tragedy has shown
I recently got a new manager at work, which has improved my quality of life as a disabled worker. This change also instigated the creation of an emergency evacuation plan for me, and that change I question.
To be clear, I’m not a wheelchair user, but I occasionally use walking aids if I’m having a bad sickle cell day. Usually, I move independently, just a bit slower than the average person, or sometimes I can’t travel as far as they can.
However, I could suddenly have a crisis at work, which could affect my ability to move. And in an emergency, I wouldn’t be able to rely on elevators, which is a problem since I work in a high-rise building; going down several flights of stairs would be nearly impossible for me, and others like me.
Knowing all this theoretically wasn’t enough to prepare me for the follow-up conversations I had.
It was decided that if there’s an emergency when I’m having a bad day and trouble moving independently, a staff member would find me and take me to a safe holding spot, where I’d wait until emergency services could help me. At first, this plan may not sound too bad. But for those of us in the United Kingdom, hearing advice that would have us stay put in a supposedly “safe place” conjures up memories of the Grenfell tragedy.
Grenfell Tower was a 23-story block of apartments in West London. In June 2017, a fire broke out there, and the advice given to those inside was to stay put in their homes (here called flats) as they’re built to contain fires. That was considered safer than trying to leave the building.
What emergency services didn’t know was that in the tower’s development, corners were cut that let the fire spread between flats. In fact, the building was covered in highly flammable materials, and the result cost 72 people their lives.
Years later, nobody has been held criminally responsible, though a final report on the matter is expected this year and past residents recently won a civil case against “organisations involved in the disastrous refurbishment” of the building. Still, some high-profile politicians have blamed the victims themselves for staying in the building, even though they were advised to do so.
With all that said, you can probably understand my reluctance to accept my office’s emergency plan for me. If I were having a sickle cell crisis, I’d rather crawl my way down a high-rise building than to wait patiently inside in hopes that I would be safe — whether there’s a fire, a bomb, or a mass shooting.
But what about those who don’t even have the luxury of crawling out?
That’s not just a U.K. problem. A recent discussion on Twitter on the emergency evacuation of disabled people featured one U.S. user, Imani Barbarin, who said that in case of an emergency, “they’d leave me in the building to wait for fire and rescue.” Her replies suggested similar issues with evacuations.
I’m not well versed enough in architecture and fire safety to be the person to offer solutions. But I do know that disabled people are not less worthy than able-bodied people. Society needs to challenge the norms that see disabled people as second-class humans. Emergency evacuation is only a small example of this.
What are the protocols in place at your school or workplace for people who struggle with their mobility? Please let me know in the comments below.
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