The Safe Way to Evacuate the Mobility Impaired

John Abruzzo, a staff accountant for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, was working at his computer on the 69th floor of One World Trade Center – North Tower on September 11, 2001. That was when the first hijacked airplane hit the first tower. “It felt like the building was punched,” he says. “My desk faces north…the side the airplane hit. Paper was just coming down. To make matters worse, the building swayed – and only in one direction.”

By the time Abruzzo, a quadriplegic, had maneuvered his power chair into the hallway, he saw only 10 of his co-workers. Everyone else had evacuated.


Someone found the evacuation chair hidden behind some boxes and transferred Abruzzo out of his wheelchair. The EVAC+CHAIR resembles a large, folding baby stroller with rear wheels that pop up and a sled-like component that takes their place when going down stairs. With the help of co-workers, they began making their way down 69 flights of stairs and outside to safety. 10 minutes after exiting the building, the North tower collapsed.

Emergency evacuation chairs are a godsend for any mobility impaired person from exiting a multi-level building during an emergency. As part of an organization’s evacuation plan, designated people would be responsible for assisting the mobility impaired. This would include finding the closest evacuation chair, helping the person into the chair and moving the person down the designated stairwell to safety.

Changing Mobility

It’s important to remember that mobility impaired workers not only include those with permanent impairment but also those with temporary conditions. A thorough evacuation plan needs to take into consideration a changing demographic:

  • Injured
  • Pregnant
  • Asthmatic
  • Arthritic
  • Epileptic
  • Blind
  • Deaf
  • Elderly
  • Children

There are several prevailing assumptions regarding evacuation procedures. One is that the mobility impaired persons’ only hope is to be carried to safety by firemen. They are instructed to wait for the firemen in areas of “safe refuge” – usually stairwells – while non-disabled evacuees descend the stairs. Another assumption is that even when an evacuation chair is available, the mobility impaired person must wait for the firemen to set up the chair and move them down the stairs. These assumptions and evacuation procedures are flawed, with potentially fatal consequences.

John Abruzzo says it took 90 minutes for his helpers to descend 69 floors. In the process, they passed firemen who had climbed no further than the 30th floor, “carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment, some kneeling off to the side trying to catch their breath. They were nowhere near where they had to be.” He and Tina Hansen, a co-worker, each escaped in evacuation chairs with inexperienced helpers because they broke the rules. Most of who did what they were expected to do, wait to be rescued, died in the towers.

How To Pick The Best Evacuation Chair

Here are six easy steps to help you choose an emergency evacuation chair:

  1. Ease of Deployment
    Preparation of the chair for operational use should be fast and simple. Tricky release mechanisms should not be waiting to trap the operator’s finger or hand, nor should the operator be expected to balance the chair with one hand whilst releasing skids, buckles or straps when the chair is occupied.
  2. Light Weight
    Weight is a major factor, particularly if the evacuation equipment is located in various parts of the building and must be carried, or simply removed from its securing location. Weight to strength ratio of the product is an important consideration, particularly with an upward trend in BMI (body mass index) throughout the population.
  3. Ease of Use
    The device must be designed to facilitate ease of transfer. PRM’s (person of reduced mobility) may require assistance and the product must be stable, open on both sides and provide passenger safety at all times. Ideally, when a wheelchair transfer takes place, both the wheelchair and evacuation chair should be of equal height and supported by an operator for extra stability.
  4. Maneuverability
    A good turning circle is required and no extra physical exertion should be needed to get around difficult landings and corners.
  5. Speed of Descent
    An evacuation chair should be able to match standard walking speed with a competent operator. The Evac+Chair can comfortably achieve two flights of stairs in 15 seconds, or four floors in a minute, without blocking the stairs for other users.
  6. Controlled Speed
    The majority of evacuation chairs depend on a rotating belt drive mechanism to span two or more stair nosings. Adjustable friction handles lets you control the speed of descent. Cable brake mechanisms are not recommended.

Reinforcing The Evacuation Plan

According to John Abruzzo, the perceived need for emergency preparedness had worn off after the 1993 World Trade Center terrorist attack. Whatever evacuation plan existed had not been practiced regularly, and when disaster struck, the plan fell apart. Most of those who had been assigned to help with rescue devices panicked and fled down the stairs. It’s one thing to have an evacuation chair. But you still need at least one other person to help the mobility impaired person down the stairs. Lucky for John Abruzzo, he has ten coworkers to thank for saving his life.

Information courtesy of EVAC+CHAIR Corporation.

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