Waking watch: disabled residents

An alarming number of developments are being forced to keep Waking Watch in place due to one or more people living in the block who cannot self-evacuate.

Blurred images of a person in a high viz jacket which says waking watch on the back, walking away from the viewer down an empty corridor of a block of flats
Waking watch patrol buildings 24 hours a day

We advocate for the rights and safety of disabled and older people living in blocks of flats but are, nevertheless, very disappointed in this approach. As leaseholders ourselves, we share the enormous financial and emotional pressure placed on us by the building safety crisis. The costs of requirements like waking watch is financially damaging for us all, disabled or otherwise.

1 in 5 of us are disabled so it is highly likely that at least one disabled person lives in every block of flats around the country. Does this mean that waking watch is needed in every general needs housing development in the UK? Clearly not. So this haphazard and misguided advice needs to stop.

One of our ‘key asks is for the Government is to ensure that any costs associated with a disabled person’s safety are taken out of the hands of leaseholders and should be centrally funded. We fear a sense of resentment and hostility to specific individuals blamed for any additional costs in the service charge.

In the meantime, we have put this advice together with expert input to help developments challenge a refusal for waking watch to be withdrawn/reduced due to the presence of someone who cannot self-evacuate.

Encourage a personal emergency evacuation plan

We encourage all developments (and responsible persons) to regularly survey its occupants and ask open questions about their ability to self-evacuate. It is wise to avoid words like ‘disability’, ‘elderly or ‘infirm’ as many people who don’t consider themselves to be disabled (but would struggle to self-evacuate) might not engage with your survey.

Remember that nearly half of those who died in Grenfell Tower were disabled so we have to accept that this is an important issue that can’t be ignored. 

For years, disabled people have been the victim of a dangerous policy of staying-put and waiting to be rescued. Even if the fire is in their flat or on their floor, many disabled people are unable to move vertically to a place where they are safe. It has finally been accepted that this approach is wrong, particularly when we know that one’s chance of survival in fire falls significantly if you don’t get out within 20 minutes. Wherever possible, a disabled person should be given early warning of a fire in the building to give them the maximum time to evacuate safely and should be a priority.

Clarify if there really is a need for a buddy

Not everyone who cannot self-evacuate needs a physical person with them. Some may need priority warning to give optimum time to evacuate or need communication aids. See our blog here for more ideas on this.

Challenge why a buddy must be waking watch

If someone does need a helping hand, why can’t it be a volunteer? Studies of evacuations of high rise buildings show time and time again that people help others in an emergency.

Phil Murphy, HRRB Fire Safety Consultant, says it’s wrong to assume that only employees can fulfill the role of a Trained Evacuation Assistant (TEA) and that, in fact, most people with a basic level of fitness can be trained in a couple of hours. “Research has proven beyond all doubt that helping each other in emergencies is what people instinctively do. Partners, live-in relatives, carers and neighbours are all most often very willing and able to be TEAs. Using the excuse that no employees are present is a poor one and, having been proved false, it is no longer acceptable.”

Guidance says that waking watch does not need to an employed person as long as they meet the person specification criteria (A4.6). So why does someone need to paid to offer an arm to a blind resident to go down the stairs?

There are also important questions to be asked around employers’ liability for requiring the waking watch to ascend a building and physically support a resident to evacuate. 

In fact, from the responsible person’s perspective, the legal liability is the same whether the buddy is an employee or a volunteer. A volunteer does not increase liability if protocols and training are in place. In fact, as employees are covered by Health & Safety at Work Regulations, extreme caution should be taken before involving employees in an evacuation that could put them in increased danger.

We urge you to ask questions around what the waking watch will specifically do for the disabled person(s) in the event of an evacuation. In our personal experience, things can get very ‘wishy washy’ so do not be afraid to pin down precisely what tasks the waking watch are expected to perform for the disabled person. Do not accept vague statements like ‘assist the person to evacuate’ – ask for specifics. Will they knock on the persons’ door to check they heard the alarm? Will they physically carry the person down the stairs if they can’t walk? Will they simply give a guiding arm whilst the person walks down the stairs? Will they push the person down the stairs in an evacuation chair?

When you have this list, this will enable two things to happen:

  • Realisation that the expectations on the waking watch are not suitable and the plan needs rethinking; or
  • An opportunity to demonstrate that the tasks could easily be fulfilled by a group of neighbours as volunteers (with the disabled person’s consent)

Involve the disabled resident

The financial pressure placed on all leaseholders is wholly unreasonable and everyone is feeling anxious about the safety of their homes. However, the situation is deeply terrifying for those of us who cannot self-evacuate so please be sensitive in challenging your current waking watch position.

Ask your agent if the tasks/actions assigned to the waking watch to enable the disabled person to evacuate have been fully laid out to that person and agreed by them. This is part of ensuring the specific tasks involved are clear, transparent and agreed by everyone.

Has the Fire & Rescue Service asked the disabled resident whether they have a social worker who could be involved in the discussion? There may be scope for alterations to a care package (if relevant) to reassure all parties. The disabled person’s consent is essential here. We are aware of several disabled tenants who cannot leave the flat unaided or self-evacate and are lobbying their local authority for increased care hours so some people may welcome the support of the Fire Service in pushing for this.

As part of this difficult but important conversation, you can also help by challenging anyone who asserts the myth that disabled people can just sell up or be rehoused to a ground floor flat. More on that here.

Everyone must have the right to evacuate a building if their life is in danger. However, insisting on waking watch provision in this manner is not the answer.

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