Does Your Building Emergency Evacuation Plan Account for the Disabled?

Don’t leave tenants with disabilities behind.


Don’t leave tenants with disabilities behind.


Preparing for building emergencies is an essential part of running a safe apartment community. More than 3.4 million Americans had to evacuate their homes as a result of hurricanes, wildfires, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Emergency planning is specifically required by state and local fire and building codes. In addition to ensuring their buildings have fire alarms, escape exits, sprinkler systems, and other emergency equipment, landlords must prepare tenants and other building occupants to respond to emergencies, either by evacuating or sheltering in place.  

While you’re no doubt tuned in to your own emergency planning duties, what you might not recognize is how these activities bring fair housing laws into play, specifically prohibitions against disability discrimination. Explanation: Tenants and occupants have a role to play to ensure their own health and safety during a building emergency. When the alarm sounds, they’re supposed to respond by heeding instructions, communicating with emergency responders, and getting themselves to a safe place, either outside or within the building. The problem is that tenants with disabilities may not be capable of carrying out these functions. That may include tenants who:

  • Can’t use stairs or travel emergency exit routes because they’re mobility impaired;
  • Can’t hear fire or warning alarms because they’re deaf or hearing impaired; and/or
  • Can’t process emergency instructions because they have cognitive disabilities.

It’s imperative to recognize and accommodate the special needs of the disabled before an emergency begins; trying to improvise a solution after the alarm sounds is likely to lead to catastrophic human and liability consequences.

To recognize the start of hurricane season, this month’s lesson is dedicated to helping you ensure that your own emergency planning is inclusive and doesn’t inadvertently leave disabled tenants behind. First, we’ll explain what the fair housing laws do and don’t say about building emergencies and the disabled. Then, we’ll outline nine steps you can take to integrate the special needs of tenants with disabilities into your own emergency response and evacuation planning. At the end of the lesson, we’ll give you two tools that you can adapt for your own use, a Model Form for assessing the special emergency response and evacuation-related needs of your own tenants and a Model Checklist to verify that you’re prepared to ensure the safe evacuation of individual tenants in the building.  


The duty of a landlord to prepare for building emergencies and implement emergency response and evacuation plans comes not from fair housing but safety laws, including state and municipal fire and building codes. However, fair housing laws have an indirect effect to the extent they require you to account for tenants with disabilities in emergency planning.  

The Fair Housing Act

Section 3604(f)(1)(B) of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) bans discrimination against rental applicants or tenants because of a disability. Section 3604(f)(3)(B) of the FHA also makes it illegal to refuse “to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services when such accommodations may be necessary to afford a person with a disability the equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”

HUD defines “reasonable accommodations” as including “adjustments to a rule, policy, practice or service that may be necessary for a person with disabilities to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” In theory, adjusting emergency plans and procedures to account for the needs of a disabled tenant would qualify as a “reasonable accommodation” required by the FHA.

But these rules have limited relevance in the context of emergency planning. That’s because under the FHA, accommodations are required only if an applicant or tenant specifically requests them. A landlord is not, in other words, expected to anticipate a request for accommodation in advance but only respond reasonably to requests once they’re actually made. And in the real world, requests for accommodations to emergency and evacuation plans aren’t all that common.

“Emergency planning isn’t generally part of tenants’ everyday life, and the need for accommodations often becomes apparent only if an emergency actually occurs, by which time it’s too late,” notes a Philadelphia fair housing attorney. “And liability for failure to accommodate after the fact doesn’t arise unless the tenant specifically requested the accommodation before the emergency.”

Nondiscrimination vs. Inclusion and Accessibility

At the end of the day, the general ban on disability discrimination and duty to make reasonable accommodations isn’t enough to rectify the problem of failure to account for the needs of the disabled in emergency response planning. What’s needed is a mandate that landlords not only refrain from exclusion but take affirmative measures to ensure accessibility and inclusion.

There’s some but not a whole lot of that in the FHA. In 1988, when Congress amended the law to ban disability discrimination, it also added language requiring that all newly constructed multifamily dwellings of four or more units intended for first occupancy after March 13, 1991, have seven physical features that would make them accessible to disabled persons, including:

  • An accessible building entrance on an accessible route;
  • Accessible common and public use areas;
  • Doors that a person in a wheelchair can use;
  • An accessible route into and through the dwelling unit;
  • Light switches, electrical outlets, thermostats, and other environmental controls in accessible locations;
  • Reinforced walls in bathrooms for later installation of grab bars; and
  • Usable kitchens and bathrooms.

While several of these features are of critical importance in building emergency response and evacuation planning, the design requirements don’t address this issue directly.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requiring that public properties be made accessible to the disabled. However, like the FHA, ADA accessibility requirements focus on building construction and design rather than emergency response and evacuation. Moreover, they apply only to properties that provide goods and services to the public. HUD regulations and court cases have made it clear that this doesn’t cover conventional multifamily housing.


The HUD Handbook

Chapter 38 of the HUD Handbook for multifamily housing properties requires landlords to implement a comprehensive Disaster Emergency Response Plan. The Handbook mentions that planning should account for the special needs of the disabled, but it doesn’t go into any details on how. Moreover, the Handbook applies only to HUD federally assisted housing programs and not landlords of private housing.



It’s imperative to ensure that your current building emergency response policies, procedures, and protocols account for the special needs of individuals with disabilities. But because fair housing laws aren’t designed to address the problem and accessibility laws are still in the formative stage, landlords seeking guidance on implementation must take their cue from nongovernmental standards, particularly the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which is considered an authoritative source on disability-inclusive emergency evacuation planning. Here are nine steps you need to take to meet NFPA criteria.  

Step 1. Perform Emergency Response Hazard Assessment for Site

First, have a competent person do a walk-through of your building(s) to identify potential barriers to safe evacuation, such as staircases or obstructions in exit routes barring access to persons in wheelchairs. If possible, have an expert or actual person with disabilities accompany the competent person during the assessment to point out barriers that a nondisabled person might overlook.

Step 2. Assess Emergency Response Needs of Disabled Tenants

As part of your risk assessment, assess the special needs of any disabled tenants or occupants in your building and how they would come into play during an emergency response or evacuation situation. (You can use our Model Form: Tenant Emergency Evacuation Special Needs Assessment to make such an assessment.) According to NFPA’s Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities (NFPA Guide), to be effective, evacuation planning must account for five different kinds of disabilities:

Mobility Disabilities. This category includes people who may use one or more devices, such as canes, crutches, or wheelchairs, to get from one place to the next, as well as individuals with “ambulatory disabilities” who can walk but only with difficulty due to respiratory, coordination, and other physical or mental limitations. Problems persons with mobility disabilities are likely to encounter in a building emergency include:

  • Maneuvering through narrow spaces;
  • Going up or down steep paths;
  • Moving over rough or uneven surfaces;
  • Reaching and seeing items placed at conventional heights; and
  • Negotiating steps or changes in level at the entrance/exit point of a building.  

Blindness or Low Vision. This category includes total or partial vision loss. Examples of the latter include color blindness and the inability to read small print, distinguish light and dark, or tolerate high glare. Individuals with these impairments may need special aids or devices to read and understand the vital information conveyed during emergency evacuations such as via exit signs, exit path markings, or written instructions.

Deafness or Partial Hearing. Standard evacuation planning is based on the assumption that people will be able to hear signals and communicate during an emergency. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Thus, emergency alarms won’t do any good if tenants can’t hear them. Hearing disabilities can also undermine crucial communication necessary to survive an emergency, such as instructions delivered over public address systems or on-site emergency response coordinators. People who communicate via lip reading must be able to see the face of the person speaking. The echo, reverberation, and extraneous background noise generated during an emergency may also compromise the effectiveness of the hearing and speech aids people with partial hearing often rely on to amplify and clarify available sounds.  

Speech-Related Disabilities. Speech impairment becomes a problem when safe emergency response or evacuation depends on the use of protocols, building features or equipment requiring the ability to speak, such as emergency phone systems in elevators, meeting points, areas of refuge, or other vital locations.

Cognitive Disabilities. Standard building emergency exit systems require a person to be able to process and understand information to evacuate or shelter in place safely. As a result, they may not work for people with multiple sclerosis, depression, alcoholism, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson disease, traumatic brain injury, chronic fatigue syndrome, stroke, and other cognitive impairments.

Step 3. Designate Persons to Aid Disabled Tenants in Emergencies

Having identified and assessed the special needs of tenants with disabilities, implement measures to accommodate those needs in the event of an emergency. Designate building managers, other tenants, or the disabled person’s own personal assistant to act as monitors responsible for looking after a tenant who needs special assistance in an emergency. Ensure that the monitors you appoint:

  • Are ready, willing, and physically able to assist the tenant without needing assistance themselves;
  • Are on the same floor or otherwise near to the tenants they’ll be assisting;
  • Are likely to be present and available when an emergency occurs—in other words, you may need coverage night and day, during the week, and on weekends; and
  • Have a backup in case the designated monitor isn’t available when the emergency occurs.

Step 4. Create Areas of Refuge

Designate safe areas where persons who can’t evacuate without assistance can wait or shelter in place until help arrives. Areas of refuge should generally be used as a last resort where no feasible evacuation options exist. Ultimately, the decision about whether to wait for emergency personnel to evacuate should be made by the disabled tenant to the extent they’re competent to make such a decision.

Step 5. Ensure There’s an Accessible Circulation Path

One of the most vital components of an evacuation plan is what the NFPA calls a “circulation path,” or continuous and unobstructed way of travel from any point in a building or structure to a public way. The circulation path isn’t just an evacuation route; it also encompasses apartments, rooms, corridors, doors, stairs, smokeproof enclosures, horizontal exits, ramps, exit passageways, escalators, moving walkways, fire escape stairs, fire escape ladders, slide escapes, alternating tread devices, areas of refuge, and elevators. According to the NFPA, a circulation path is considered useable to a person with disabilities if those persons are either:

  • Able to travel unassisted through it to a public way; or
  • Able to travel unassisted through that portion of the circulation path necessary to reach an area of refuge.

Step 6. Ensure There’s an Accessible Occupant Notification System

Make sure that the alarms, public address systems, and other occupant notification systems in your building deliver messages and instructions that a person with disabilities is capable of noticing and understanding. Among other things, that includes verifying that there are effective means in place to direct disabled occupants to and through the circulation path in the event of an emergency. This might require the use of special procedures, building features, or equipment such as:

  • Sign language, assistive listening devices, or other communication aids to provide emergency response training and information;
  • Visual alarms or lighted fire strobes for the hearing impaired;
  • Tactile/Braille signage and maps and/or audible directional signage to help the visually impaired navigate exit routes; and
  • Color-coded fire doors and picture books displaying evacuation procedures for persons with cognitive disabilities.

Step 7. Ensure Emergency Procedures Address Tenants’ Needs

Incorporate tenants’ special needs into your building emergency procedures, such as provisions for evacuation of tenants in wheelchairs when elevators are out of service. Try to get wheelchair-bound tenants to participate in drills to practice those procedures. Also establish protocols for monitors to communicate with tenants in need of assistance and first responders.

Step 8. Provide for Service Animals

You’ll also need to incorporate special provisions into your emergency evacuation plan to deal with tenants who have service animals. Try to get tenants with service animals to plan ahead and let emergency management personnel know of their specific preferences regarding how the animal should be handled and evacuated in an emergency. Those preferences should be put in writing and distributed to first responders and appropriate building and management personnel.

NFPA also advises that tenants discuss how emergency personnel can best help them if their service animal becomes hesitant or disoriented during the emergency. First responders should be notified of the presence of a service animal and be provided with specific information in the evacuation plan. In addition, extra food and supplies should be kept on hand for the service animal.

Step 9. Stage Emergency Evacuation Drills

Once you figure out what you’re going to do to assist tenants with disabilities during a building emergency, stage drills to practice those protocols and procedures under realistic conditions. If possible, get tenants to participate in the drills to ensure they understand the plans and are capable of executing them in an actual emergency.


Model Form: Tenant Emergency Evacuation Special Needs Assessment

Model Checklist: Personal Emergency Evacuation Checklist