Fire Stairs Need Accessible Features Too! But Why?

Old fire stair looking down the centre of the stair to the bottom.

This might come as a surprise, but fire exit stairs in Australia need some level of accessibility provided, even when they are just used as an exit path between levels of a building during an emergency.

This helps people move through a stairway to an exit and a safe place outside the building. Having a suitable handrail to hold is important for many people, including those older occupants, people with some level of mobility limitations, or those who need support during what could be a stressful event.

The ability to identify the edges of stair treads also aids people with low vision and provides great benefit for everyone. Ultimately, a high contrast to the treads edges will help to reduce slips, trips and falls in the stairs, the last thing one wants during an emergency evacuation.

Back in May 2011, with the introduction of the Premises Standards and changes to the Building Code of Australia, we saw the first of the accessible features introduced into fire-isolated stairs.

Fire exit stairs have a specific purpose when only used for emergency egress, therefore, they do not need to comply with all aspects of the stair provisions of AS 1428.1 (2009). But there are some relevant requirements that help provide a more inclusive, usable, and safer stair during an emergency evacuation of a building.

BCA/Premises Standards Access Code Clause D3.3(a)(iii) introduced in May 2011 states “for a fire-isolated stairway, clause 11.1(f) and (g) of AS 1428.1”. This means a fire-isolated exit stair (but not a non-fire-isolated exit stair…) must have compliant stair tread nosing strips, in a compliant profile, and with a minimum of 30% luminance contrast.

Yellow stair tread nosing strips on brown coloured concrete, view looking down on treads

BCA Clause D2.17(a)(vi) was added in May 2013, which states “(vi) in a required exit serving an area required to be accessible, designed and constructed to comply with clause 12 of AS 1428.1”

What does this mean, well, the BCA now requires at least one handrail in each flight of an exit stair, whether it is an fire-isolated stair or not, to have a handrail profile that complies with AS 1428.1 (2009) profile. An example is shown below.

Modern fire stairs, view down from landing of handrail

BCA Clause D2.13(a)(v), Clause D2.14(a)(ii) and Table D2.14  were added in May 2014 prescribing minimum slip-resistance classifications for stairs and landings.

However, notwithstanding the minimum requirements for accessible features in a fire-isolated stair or an exit stair discussed above, there is nothing wrong with a developer or designer going above the minimum requirements and introducing some of the other aspects of AS 1428.1 (2009) or other best-practice references, to a fire-isolated stair or an exit stair.

The most obvious benefits would be:

  • A handrail in an accessible profile on each side of the stairs;
  • A wider width beyond 1000mm, allowing for the movement of slower and faster people, and the contraflow of emergency services personnel; and
  • Larger landings on each occupied level of the building, that have been designed as refuge areas for people who have difficulty using stairs, those who might need to rest, or those occupants who have a mobility disability and need assistance to evacuate the building.

You can also read more about how to make buildings safer in an emergency here