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Emergency Evacuation of People with Disabilities

While an "emergency" by its very definition is an unforeseen event, it also usually requires immediate action. Developing an evacuation plan which addresses identifying exits, designates areas of refuge and assembly point (where all evacuees will meet once they have evacuated the building), and provides additional assistance to persons with disabilities gives everyone a plan of action which shortens their response time and enables them to help themselves and others.

All persons at UWO, including those with disabilities, must prepare for emergencies ahead of time. An evacuation plan must start with this basic premise: Everyone must try to evacuate to the nearest, safe exit.

At least two emergency passageways must be identified in each building. Each passageway must either lead to an exit or safely lead to a designated area of refuge.

After identifying the exits, a recommendation is that each person with a disability ask a co-worker, friend or fellow student to provide assistance if an emergency develops. This "evacuation assistant" should be informed about what disabilities you have and how he or she can best help you.

Persons with disabilities have four basic evacuation options:

    1. Horizontal evacuation: This entails using building exits to gain access to outside ground level, or going into unaffected wings of multi-building complexes.
    2. Stairway (vertical) evacuation: This means of evacuation means using stairwells to reach ground level exits from the building.
    3. Staying in Place: Unless danger is imminent, remaining in a room with an exterior window, a telephone and a solid or fire resistant door may be your best option. With this approach, the person may keep in contact with emergency services by dialing 9-911 and reporting his or her location directly to the University Police. 
    4. The police will then immediately relay this location to on-site emergency personnel, who will determine the necessity for evacuation. Phone lines are expected to remain in service during most building emergencies. If the phone lines fail, the individual can signal from the window by waving a cloth or other visible object. NOTE: The Stay in Place approach may be more appropriate for sprinkler protected buildings, or buildings where an "area of refuge" is not nearby or available. It may also be more appropriate for an occupant who is alone when the alarm sounds. A label on the door jamb or frame can identify a fire resistant door. Non-labeled 1 ¾ inch thick solid core wood doors hung on a metal frame also offer good fire resistance.
    5. Area of Refuge: With an evacuation assistant, going to an area of refuge away from obvious danger is another emergency plan option. The evacuation assistant will then go to the building evacuation assembly point and notify the on-site emergency personnel of the location of the person with a disability. Emergency personnel will determine if further evacuation is necessary. The safest Areas of Refuge are stair enclosures common to high-rise buildings, and open-air exit balconies. Other possible Areas of Refuge include fire-rated corridors or vestibules adjacent to exit stairs and elevator lobbies. Many campus buildings feature fire rated corridor construction that may offer safe refuge.Taking a position in a rated corridor next to the stairs is a good alternative to a small stair landing crowded with the other building occupants using the stairways as a means of egress in an emergency.For false alarms or an isolated and contained fire, a person with a disability may not have to evacuate. The decision to evacuate will be made by the Oshkosh Fire Department (OFD). The OFD will tell the individual of their decision or relay the information via the University Police Department.


    Suggested Guidelines for Different Types of Disabilities

      1. Mobility Impaired - WheelchairPersons using wheelchairs should Stay in Place, or move to an Area of Refuge with their assistant when the alarm sounds. The evacuation assistant should then proceed to the evacuation assembly point outside the building and alert the Oshkosh Fire Department or University Police to the location of the person with a disability. If the person with a disability is alone, he or she should phone 9-911 with their present location and the area of refuge they are headed to.NOTE: If the stair landing is chosen as the area of refuge, please note that many campus buildings have relatively small stair landings, and wheelchair users are advised to wait until the heavy traffic has passed before entering the stairway.Stairway evacuation of wheelchair users should be conducted only by trained professionals or the Oshkosh Fire Department. Only in situations of extreme danger should untrained people attempt to evacuate wheelchair users.
      2. Mobility Impaired - Non WheelchairPersons with mobility impairments who are able to walk independently may be able to negotiate stairs in an emergency with minor assistance. If danger is imminent, the individual should wait until the heavy traffic has cleared before attempting the stairs. If there is no immediate danger (such as detectable smoke, fire or an unusual odor), the person with the disability may choose to stay in the building with the options listed above, until the emergency personnel arrive and determine if evacuation is necessary.
      3. Deaf/Hard of HearingMost buildings on campus are equipped with fire alarm strobe lights; however, some are not. Persons with hearing loss may not hear audio emergency alarms and will need to be alerted of emergency situations. Emergency instructions can be given by writing a short explicit note to evacuate.Reasonable accommodations for persons with hearing loss may be met by modifying the building fire alarm system, particularly for occupants who spend most of their day in one location. Persons requiring such accommodation should contact the UWO ADA Coordinator at (920) 424-2296 (voice) or email at
      4. Visually ImpairedMost people with a visual impairment will be familiar with their immediate surroundings and frequently traveled routes. Since the emergency evacuation route is likely different from the commonly traveled route, persons who are visually impaired may need assistance in evacuating. The assistant should offer their elbow to the individual with a visual impairment and guide him or her through the evacuation route. During the evacuation, the assistant should communicate as necessary to assure safe evacuation.


      Prior planning and practicing of emergency evacuation routes are important in ensuring a safe evacuation.

      For additional information contact UWO's ADA Coordinator in Dempsey Hall, Room 211, (920) 424-2296, or visit the ADA Information for Students and Staff Web page.

      Additional Resources:

      • Fire Safety for Wheelchair Users at Work and at Home, United Spinal Association
      • Fire Safety for People with Disabilities, National Fire Prevention Association
      • Individuals With Special Needs, Prepared by Federal Emergency Management Agency
      • Emergency Evacuation Preparedness: Taking Responsibility for Your Safety  , Center for Disability Issues and the Health Professions• Disaster Mitigation for Persons with Disabilities, Prepared by the Center for an Accessible Society• Disaster Preparedness for People with Disabilities  , American Red Cross• S.A.F.E.T.Y.first: Working Together for Safer Communities, Easter Seals

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