I am a permanent wheelchair user and have been disabled for over ten years. I used to be a hotel General Manager with Trusthouse Forte and managed hotels in Chipping Norton, Abergavenny and Ilkley. I have stayed in hotels and conference venues for thousands of bed nights but I am concerned that a disabled person will die in a conference venue fire before suitable legislation is brought in to rectify the key issues. In this blog I recount a true personal experience and my personal views on what needs to happen.
I lay in bed at 10.45pm in a London hotel with conference rooms when the fire alarms went off. I had not been given a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP) when I checked in and there was nothing specific about the evacuation of a permanent wheelchair user in the room. As a former hotelier I knew I was probably safer staying in the room as I could not use the lift. If smoke came under the door I could use wet towels and the door would withstand a fire for about 45 minutes. It was still scary as I wondered what was happening.
I did think someone would phone me or call in to check I was OK but nothing happened other than the bells continued. I had seen a refuge point but I decided to stay where I was.
The alarms rang continuously for another twenty minutes and I was still lying in bed with no contact. About ten minutes after the alarms stopped a manager/supervisor came to the room to reassure me and explain what had happened. I was told the fire alarm zone was some way from my room and I had not been in any danger. Would it not have been good practice to tell me this from the start? Would it have been even better if I had filled in a PEEP, signed it to show my agreement on the course of action to be taken, and then been given a copy at check-in?
A PEEP is an important document for both the conference hotel and the disabled person. I am rarely asked to complete one and I don’t know why hotels do not have this as a standard procedure. I was at a fire evacuation conference recently and asked the fire brigade representative for his advice in the above scenario. He made it very clear that the fire brigade was not responsible for evacuation. Their role was to put out the fire and rescue people if they were in danger. Evacuation is the role of the hotel and a PEEP was good practice. Another person on the panel suggested what happened was totally unacceptable and that I should name and shame the hotel. I have not done that on this occasion but I did get a refund on my room and I have not stayed at the hotel since.
One point that the industry must take into consideration, especially as it builds so many new conference venues is the situation of a refuge. At the same conference the fire brigade officer said that it was unacceptable for a disabled guests’ refuge point to be a dumping ground for wheelchair users. They were his words but that is exactly what most refuges feel like to me. He said a refuge point should be a safe temporary waiting point that leads to an evacuation point outside the building and not a blank wall to look at while waiting to find out what is going on and hoping all is OK.
I asked the question in the headline above of the fire conference panel and the unanimous answer was yes, a disabled person will die before the situation improves.Frightening. Will it be your conference venue? If it was could you live with it for the rest of your life knowing it could have been avoided? I couldn’t but someone may soon have to.
Any comments? Email Paul Colston