High-rise buildings are an increasingly common sight across major Australian cities. However, space constraints in urban centres are forcing property developers to construct ever-taller high-rise structures, which in turn present unique evacuation challenges in the event of on-site or off-site emergencies. For this reason, owners of tall buildings must develop and implement sound evacuation and safety procedures.
Since the World Trade Centre terror attack, it has become clear that high-rise buildings and their occupants face significant safety challenges. For starters, evacuation is not easy because people who have panicked are unlikely to follow/obey well-known emergency procedures.
In addition, on-site refuge zones and emergency gathering areas may offer minimal or no protection to occupants of high-rise building. Besides these challenges, research carried out by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat found that high-rise buildings globally are prone to highly unpredictable natural and un-natural threats. This means it is virtually impossible to anticipate and address all potential human safety issues.
Besides this, exiting tall buildings quickly and safely often presents a huge technical problem. For this reason, the people who manage such buildings should develop a multi-pronged human safety and evacuation strategy hinged on the following solutions:
Emergency evacuation procedures detection and communication
A good emergency detection system should consist of gas detectors, motion sensors, fire alarms, as well as emergency address unit. Such a system could also incorporate a dedicated mobile app that would make it easier to reach a building’s residents/occupants.
Another way of enhancing human safety and evacuation in tall buildings is by designating and equipping on-site refuge areas. For high-rise (more than 24 meters high) and super high-rise (more than 40 floors high) buildings, such an area could occupy an entire floor or consist of compartmentalised locations on each floor that should be accessible by both able-bodied and physically challenged people as well.
A stay-in-place strategy for evacuation procedures is problematic because it presupposes that high-rise buildings are fireproof and retain their structural integrity during emergencies although this is not always the case.
Evacuation procedures platforms/systems
High-rise buildings should also have appropriate evacuation platforms or systems installed although their effectiveness depends on building height, rescue capacity, and number of evacuation cycles required to move some or all occupants/residents to safety. Nevertheless, such systems expedite evacuation when they are installed in compliance with the relevant safety protocols/standards.
Currently, most of the evacuation systems available commercially are stored on the roof of high-rise buildings and they can be broken down into two categories: powered and gravity-assisted. Some evacuation systems including escape chutes, slides and tubes may be integrated within a building during construction. The Australian Network on Disability emphasises that evacuation systems should be accessible by all individuals including the physically disabled.
Residents or occupants of high-rise buildings should be able to egress safely in the event of an emergency. In fact, Australian Standards on fire and fire control including AS 3745 requires commercial and public buildings to have well thought-out emergency evacuation procedures, which should be based on emergency detection, on-site refuge and evacuation systems.