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Exits and Fire Exits

Should there be an outbreak of fire, it is essential that people can safety and quickly evacuate the building without being put at any risk. Fire exit routes need to lead as directly to a place of safety as possible and must be marked with exit signs.

The exact numbers of fire exits needed in any building depends on a number of factors, including the number of people who could potentially use the exit. Churches and Places of Worship that have recently been refurbished or built will comply with the current Building Regulations so the number and size of the fire exits should be adequate in these situations. In older premises, the exits will need further assessment to ensure the exits are large enough and well distributed.

Evacuation Time

In most Churches and Places of Worship, the time taken to evacuate the building should be about 2 minutes 30 seconds, with consideration being made to the time it takes for people to respond to a fire alarm. 

This time can be increased by up to 30 seconds for new buildings that comply with the latest Building Regulations, or reduced as much as necessary for a high fire risk building, such as those predominantly built from wood, where the risk to life due to fire is much higher than average.

Numbers and size of exits

A typical single-width exit door (750mm wide) will allow about 40 people per minute to evacuate.  Larger doors will typically allow more people to pass through, so a 1050mm door width can allow as many as 80 people to evacuate per minute.

However, when calculating how many exits are required, it is usually assumed that the largest exit route is unavailable because it is blocked by fire. If more than one exit discharges into the same place (for example, a lobby), then consider the aggregate loss of exit capacity caused by a fire in the lobby.

It is often the case that the number of fire exits limits the number of people that can safely use a building although other factors can have an impact.  In some cases, the number of seats is the deciding factor as to the capacity of a room or building.  In others, it is more down to the practicalities of the number of people being in the room.

It is commonly accepted that buildings where no more than 60 people congregate, one exit is adequate providing that the building is on ground floor level only. However, it is always recommended that more than one fire exit is available so there is always another way out if the main entrance is blocked by fire. 

There are other exceptions to the above rule-of-thumb of always having more than one exit, such as rooms where only a couple of people could gather, although this needs to be considered in the Risk Assessment because this depends on the risk of fire starting or spreading around the building.

The fire exits should be distributed around the building so ensuring that people can reach a safe exit route. Ideally the two exit routes would go in opposite directions, but at the least they should be positioned so that they are far enough apart so that a fire blocking one of the doors will not block the other.  In looking at the direction of the exits, also consider any furniture or obstacles that could prevent people taking a direct path to an exit.

In some buildings, inward opening, rotating or sliding doors are installed at main entrances.  None of these types of door are usually acceptable as emergency exit doors so they might need to be fixed open using a latch or chain if the door is needed as an exit route. Note that windows and ladders are not acceptable for use as fire exits in Churches and Places of Worship because the public cannot be expected to use these in an emergency.

Travel Distances

An additional assessment is needed to determine if the position of exits with a building is adequate.  This is to look at the travel distances.  This is the distance that a person needs to move to reach the final exit from the building, or to a storey exit within a fire protected staircase. Consideration must be given to furniture and building features that might make the travel distance longer as people move around these objects.

A number of travel distances have been published in government guidance, and for a typical Church or Place of Worship with normal fire risks, the following would usually apply as recommendations:

  • 32 metres in areas with seating in rows where more than one exit is provided
  • 15 metres in areas with seating in rows where there is only one exit
  • 45 metres in all other areas where more than one exit is provided
  • 18 metres in all other areas where there is only one exit

Seating

The seating plan can also play a significant role in the safe evacuation of people.  The layout should ensure people can access a safe aisle or circulation space readily.

Ideally, seating should be secured to the floor so that seats do not move or fall. If seating is not secured to the floor, rows should usually be no longer than 12 seats and the seats should be secured together. No fewer than four seats should be secured together otherwise the seats could be tipped over easily and block someone's exit route.

Where stand-alone seating is used, the layout should allow for the inevitable rearrangement of seating by people in the congregation, and enough seats should be put out to prevent people adding seats to the end of rows, in aisles.

Seating plans need to allow free and ready access to exit routes (including aisles) and allowance needs to be made for wheelchair users so that they do not need to use aisle space. Aisles should be at least 1.05 metres wide along the entire length.  Seats should allow for a clear seatway of 305mm (the distance between the back of one seat to the closest part of the one behind is the seatway) to allow space for people to move along a row of seats.

Door locks and door security

For the final exit door from the building, it would be usual to use panic locks (of the 'push bar to open' kind).  Such doors must be opened quickly in an emergency as people might panic as they evacuate the burning building, so additional locks or mechanisms must not be fitted. It must be remembered that the door should be capable of being opened by any person immediately in an emergency.

Some doors might be secured by locks and keys. It is not considered acceptable to have a key available nearby or in a red 'break glass' key box.  Instead, a thumb-turn should be fitted to the inside of such doors to allow the door to be unlocked quickly by anyone.  All exit doors should not be locked when the public is present and checks should be made beforehand that this is the case unless the doors have simple lock mechanisms, like a panic bar.

Electronic locking systems are becoming more popular.  These must be fitted with suitable 'emergency door release' call points (break glass units), green in colour, and positioned so the door can be unlocked if the exit is needed.  These locking mechanisms should ideally be connected to the fire alarm system, if there is one present, to ensure that the doors unlock automatically and remain unlocked until reset manually whenever the fire alarm is activated.

Unofficial and unwanted use of fire exit doors can be a problem in some premises.  It might be that people could be looking for a short cut, or want some extra ventilation in hot weather, but the use of fire exit doors can lead to other safety and security implications, not least the safety of children.

There are a number of ways in which the use of fire exit doors can be controlled.  Breakable straps are available that seal around the panic bar, or can be looped through screwed eyelet fixings. These seals break at about 10 to 12kg force, so will break when the door is opened for legitimate reasons.  Note that cable ties and other non-breakable or home-made securing methods must not be used as these will prevent people using the exit door.

Alarms can be a useful deterrent to unwanted fire exit use.  The simplest is a stick-on alarm available for a few pounds from most hardware stores.  The disadvantage of these is that many models are very loud and can be turned off by a small switch on the side. However, a number of manufacturers produce specific fire exit alarms that cost more but have the advantage of having a key or code number to limit who can arm or disarm the alarm.

Inward Opening

To ensure people can evacuate the premises quickly, exit doors should open in the direction of travel.

In some situations, including many older / historic Parish Church buildings, the doors open inwards. While this might be acceptable for Places of Worship where only a small number congregate (60 or fewer people), it is not likely this would be acceptable otherwise.  A chain can be placed in such a way as to secure the door open at all times. Where this is not practical, the door can be supervised by a steward or a nominated person (such as a fire marshall) to open and secure the door in the event of a fire.  Any person given this role should sit close to the door at all times and cover should be arranged for holidays etc...

Keep Clear

Fire exit routes must be kept clear at all times. 

There are 'rules' about what you cannot have in these areas because they might hamper evacuation. The list includes:

Bullet pointPortable heating equipment (including electric heaters)
Bullet pointAnything that has a naked flame, including candles and lamps
Bullet pointCooking equipment (including tea urns and kettles)
Bullet pointBins and rubbish bags
Bullet pointStored items, such as clothes for a charity shop or bring-and-buy sale
Bullet pointNotice boards (unless small and the notices are kept firmly pinned onto the board)

It might be acceptable to have a coat rack in the escape route as long as it does not reduce the width of the exit significantly. Fire retardant furniture might be acceptable, again providing that there is no reduction in the escape route width and consideration is given to the fact that people will often move the furniture about and this could block the exit route.

In the event of fire, smoke can quickly make visibility poor.  Exits need to be well lit by normal mains lighting, which should be switched on whenever the building is in use. In many situations, emergency lighting might be necessary both inside the building and directly outside the final exit doors.  Such lighting would be designed to provide enough light to find an exit in safety.

Exits for people with disabilities

Current Disability Discrimination legislation requires a provision of suitable fire exits for disabled people. In some buildings, it might be a good idea to have a number of dedicated exit routes for people with impaired mobility where the normal fire exits are not suitable.  In situations where exit routes need to be marked as suitable for wheelchair users, special exit signs are available which show a wheelchair symbol next to the usual fire exit symbols, arrow and text.

In some larger buildings, it might be necessary to provide 'refuge points' for disabled or elderly people to wait for assistance. This is necessary because most lifts cannot be used in the event of fire as people might be put in greater danger if the lift doors open onto the fire itself.  Refuge areas usually need to have some form of intercom or communications system and must be protected against fire by means of fire doors.

In any case, you should have a procedure in place to enable the safe evacuation of all people from the building. This includes those that might have impaired hearing, mobility, sight or perception.  For regular attenders, employees and volunteers, consider setting up a personal emergency evacuation plan (PEEP), where a detailed plan is laid down for each person, highlighting who will provide assistance and what assistance is needed.

Fire and Emergency Assembly Point

A Fire Assembly Point is a place of safety where people meet if there is a fire or similar emergency. This needs to be away from the building, and the normal recommendation is for it to be a distance equal to twice the height of the building. The assembly point must be large enough to accommodate all the people that might be present and located so that people do not get in the way of the emergency services.

It is also wise to have a second assembly point available. If the main assembly point is being affected by a fire, people can be moved to a further place of safety.  Additionally to this, if the emergency is during bad weather, arrangements should be made to accommodate people in a nearby building so they are not affected by the weather.

Additional Information

Because of the complexities of fire exit calculation, the above is only an overview. More information on exits and means of escape can be found in the guidance to the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005. These are available from the Department of Communities and Local Government.  Additional guidance about the evacuation of people with disabilities is also available from this source.

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