Designing barrier-free Alarms and Escape Routes – for Everybody

In the event of a fire, many affected persons depend on operational, organisational and technical measures for safe egress. The consideration of people with special needs when designing fire alarm systems and escape routes can benefit everyone. This article will discuss a summary of research findings from the joint project ORPHEUS funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in combination with design principles of universal design.

Designing barrier-free Alarms and Escape Routes – for Everybody
Underground transport infrastructure enables lots of people to travel quickly and reliably. The BMBF project ORPHEUS aims to optimise smoke removal and evacuation strategies in underground train stations and is also focussing on alarm systems and the behaviour of those affected in the process. (Picture: Pexels on Pixabay)

By Dr. Laura Künzer and Dr. Gesine Hofinger. There is increasing recognition that inclusion does not just mean barrier-free accessibility when entering buildings or infrastructures. Egress from these structures – and especially the need to evacuate in the event of acute danger – poses a challenge for people with special needs.

People with “special needs” are not only those with e.g. restricted mobility and the visually or hearing impaired but also include injured people, pregnant women, families with small children and people who are not familiar with the language or lack of knowledge about local surroundings or the infrastructure.

Evacuation research has addressed general principles of alarms and escape route guidance [1], [2]. The design of barrier-free escape and emergency routes as a part of barrier-free fire protection [3] has only been considered in recent years, e.g. for high-rise buildings [4], road tunnels [5] or underground railway stations [6, 7].

The concept of “design for everyone” or “universal design” has become more widespread in recent years, without initially focusing on the subject of evacuations [8]. The basic idea is that good design enables equitable use of a building irrespective of age, gender, language or abilities. This means that the focus is no longer placed on the requirements resulting from individual problems but rather on design that offers equal use for all users. This is specified in seven principles [9]:

  • Principle 1: Equitable use
  • Principle 2: Flexibility in use
  • Principle 3: Simple and intuitive design
  • Principle 4: Perceptible information
  • Principle 5: Tolerance for error
  • Principle 6: Low physical effort
  • Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

This article will examine these principles in more detail with a focus on alarms for the design of evacuation and escape routes.

Table 1: Examples for the use of design principles from the field of universal design for acoustic and optical alarms
Download table as pdf

Improving evacuation guidance

The joint project ORPHEUS ( funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research researched meth-ods for optimised fire protection and the evacuation of underground railway stations in the event of a fire. A part of this project dealt with evacuations from a psychological perspective based on studies with different user groups. Observations, site visits and interviews were used to gain access to requirements of different subway users with special needs.

Working with these groups can be a challenge for research projects because it is not easy to arrange their participation in the field studies (even when cooperating with associations). In addition, even persons with special needs do not often consider the issue of barrier-free alarm systems or evacuation from underground stations. Nevertheless, they can provide relevant information about their needs and requirements in such situations which also might lead to measures to help all users. It is thus important and worthwhile for fire protection planners and architects to communicate directly with those in need of barrier-free egress.

Table 2: Examples for implementing escape routes using priciples of universal design

1. Equitable use:

  • Everyone can be safely evacuated equitably
  • Escape routes can also be found and used by blind people, the visually impaired and those people with restricted mobility

2. Flexibility in use:

  • The escape routes can be used on foot and with a walking frame or wheelchair (widths, inclinations, etc.)
  • Entrances are used as exits
  • Check the use of lifts for evacuating people with restricted mobility or those with small children

3. Simple and intuitive design:

  • Clear guidance along escape routes, marking of the full route
  • Marking of the escape routes is language-free or uses minimal language
  • Doors open in the direction of escape
  • Use familiar symbols and colours. Green escape route signs and green running lights are suitable for marking escape routes and the direction to be taken [8]

4. Perceptible information:

  • Make escape routes recognisable as such and design them to be inviting
  • Guarantee that the marking is visible for small people or those in wheelchairs (installation heights, distances). Escape route signs near to floor height fulfil this criteria and remain visible for longer if there is smoke
  • High-contrast marking of the escape route that is installed so that it is easier to perceive
  • (incorporate colours in the environment [9]).

4. Tolerance for error:

  • Avoid escape routes and emergency exits being overlooked: Mark them using signs and lights
  • Consider the whole escape route, not only parts of it
  • Regard the escape route as a continuation of the guidance given by the alarm system
  • Use helpers and personnel to guide people

5. Low physical effort:

  • Doors can also be opened by people with little strength or those seated in a wheelchair
  • Escape routes should be so short that even people with low physical strength can reach a safe area.

6. Size and Space for Approach and Use

  • People can either reach an exit/safe area or a safe waiting area
  • Door buttons must be fitted so that they can also be reached by small people or those sitting in wheelchairs

Designing an effective alarm system

The speed with which an evacuation begins is largely dependent on the alarm system. The specific design of the alarm system must be integrated into evacuation concepts. An evacuation alarm should make people aware of the current danger (e.g. using an alarm or signal tone or signal word) and inform them of the need to evacuate. However, alarm or signal tones on their own provide little information and do not necessarily indicate what action to take: What they mean and how to react must be learnt. An alarm should thus also provide linguistic information about the danger, e.g. a fire. Instructions on how to respond act as the link between the alarm and the escape route guidance because they convey specific information on appropriate behavior. In addition to the general instruction to exit a building or infrastructure, people with disabilities may also require information e.g. where to find a safe waiting area.

For the consideration of people with disabilities there exist technical standards (e.g. for Germany DIN 18040-1 or 18040-3). These primarily comprise technical requirements, e.g. ensuring that an alarm can be perceived using both acoustic and optical signals (so-called two-sense principle). If multiple senses are addressed, e.g. hearing and sight, this provides a more effective level of redundancy and makes it possible to warn people with sensory impairments. Acoustic alarms – the most commonly used alarms – should therefore be supplemented by an optical alarm. A purely optical alarm is not recommended because users would have to explicitly look at this alarm. Tactile alarms (i.e. those that can be felt) e.g. in the form of vibrations, could be considered for infrastructures such as work places.

FeuerTrutz International 1-2019: Designing barrier-free Alarms and Escape Routes – for Everybody
It should also be possible for people with little strength or those sitting in a wheelchair to open doors. Therefore, door buttons should be fitted so that they can be reached by everybody. (Photograph: Josef Faßbender)

Designing escape routes to enable self-rescue

Alongside alarm systems, the design and marking of escape routes is another impor-tant factor for self-rescue. However, if escape routes have not been designed to meet the needs of people with disabilities, they can hinder the person’s ability to rescue themselves. They will then need assistance or even need to be rescuedby emergency services, which they do not necessarily require due to their disability. The principles of universal design can be transferred to the design and marking of escape routes, as demonstrated by the examples in Tables 1 and 2. This results in another positive effect: If escape routes become easier to use for people with disabilities, they are gener-ally better to use for everyone.


Research results provide information on the requirements of different user groups. Incorporating these needs into evacuation concepts using priciples of universal designis important to provide an optimum level of safety for everyone. Universal design thus makes equitable participation of various different user groups possible, also in the field of fire protection.


Dr. Laura Künzer and Dr. Gesine Hofinger: Qualified psychologists, partners in HF Team – Human Factors Research Consulting Training ( ); areas of activity include human factors and safety, especially designing warnings and announcements, evacuations, visitor safety for events, emergency planning, incident and crisis command staff; research and advisory tasks, as well as lecturing at various universities and teaching institutions.


[1] Tubbs, J. S., Meacham, B. J., Egress design solutions: A guide to evacuation and crowd management planning. John Wiley & Sons, 2007

[2] Künzer, L., Mythen der Räumung und Evakuierung (Myths about Vacating and Evacuation), FeuerTrutz Magazine 4, 2015

[3] Göbell, J., Kallinowsky, S., Barrierefreier Brandschutz: Methodik – Konzepte – Maßnahmen (Barrier-Free Fire Protection: Methods – Concepts – Measures), Rudolf Müller, 2016

[4] Boenke, D., Grossmann, H., Michels, K., Organisatorische und bauliche Maßnahmen zur Bewältigung von Notfallsituationen körperlich und sensorisch behinderter Menschen in Hochhäusern und öffentlichen Gebäuden mit hoher Benutzerfrequenz, Abschlussbericht (Organisational and building measures for managing emergency situations involving peoples with physical and sensory impairments in high-rise buildings and public buildings with high numbers of visitors, final report), Fraunhofer IRB Verlag, 2011

[5] Wagener, T., Grossmann, H., Berücksichtigung der Belange behinderter Personen bei Ausstattung und Betrieb von Straßentunneln, Bericht zum Forschungsprojekt (Taking into account the needs of disabled people in the fitting and operation of road tunnels, report on the research project) FE03.405/2005/FRB, Wirtschaftsverlag NW, 2009

[6] Hofinger, G. et al., Human Factors in Pedestrian Simulation: Field Studies in Underground Stations. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics: PED 2016, Hefei, 2016

[7] Künzer, L., Hofinger G., Zinke R., Safe Evacuation for All - A top 10 List of Requirements. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics: PED 2018, Lund, 2018.

[8] Story, M. F., Mueller, J. L., Mace, R., The Universal Design File: Designing for People of All Ages and Abilities. The Center for Universal Design, NCSU, 1998

[9] Story, M.F., Mueller, J.L., Mace, R.L., The Universal Design File, Designing for People of All Ages and Abilities, NC State University, 1998, URL: (last accessed on 20/12/2017)

[10] Künzer, L., Hofinger, G., Zinke, R., The Influence of Colored Running Lights on Route Choice – Dynamic Guidance and Affordance, Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Pedestrian and Evacuation Dynamics: PED 2016, Hefei, 2016

[11] Mayr, J.; Battran, L.: Brandschutzatlas, Kap. 7.12, Psychologische Einflussfaktoren in Räumungen und Evakuierungen und Hinweise für Flucht- und Rettungswege (Fire Protection Atlas, Chapter 7.12, Psy-chological factors in evacuations and information for escape and rescue routes), FeuerTrutz Network GmbH, Cologne (published March 2018)

The article was published in FeuerTrutz International, issue 1.2019 (January 2019).
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