Designing for childcare in high rise buildings

Written by Marianne Foley ABCB SME Network Expert on Performance-based design, Fellow and Principal Fire Engineer, Arup 19/09/2018
Image of inside a child care facility room

The increasing demand for childcare coupled with long working hours for parents are giving rise to the need for CBD based childcare.

With the requirements for outdoor play spaces, the high cost of ground and first floor retail spaces, and the density of city development, the most practicable available spaces are often podium levels, several storeys above ground and most commonly in high rise office buildings.

The NCC has no specific requirements for fire safety or evacuation of children from high rise buildings, yet there are some potential challenges that do need to be considered. This important issue was endorsed as part of the ABCB’s work program at the recent meeting of Building Ministers in August 2018, where the ABCB has been tasked, as a matter of priority, to consider any fire safety issues associated with vulnerable children in high rise buildings.

The challenges

In most situations high rise buildings are evacuated floor by floor in a cascading way, with a set time of usually a few minutes between floors. But for children, fire stairs are difficult to manage with handrails above their reach, big steps, relatively low lighting and unfamiliar conditions. This means long movement times down stairs to external safe areas. Evacuating tens of young children and babies with limited staff necessitates staff re-entering the fire stairs multiple times to evacuate children in stages, whilst other staff remain with the children in the assembly area. In a conventional evacuation sequence, this would lead to conflict in the fire stairs between evacuating adults from floors above the childcare and the children, and counter flow conflict with staff returning up the stairs to bring down more children. For safety reasons, children cannot mix with, or be assisted by, unknown adults.

So what are the options?

Hold adults on the floors above for a significant time until all children have been evacuated to an external safe area? Hold the children on their floor until the entire building has been evacuated, which could be well over an hour. In the case of an actual fire in a building, neither of these options may be adequate.

Other considerations

Instead, the fire safety provisions need to be considered holistically on a performance basis, with the evacuation strategy being central to the design. Options include:

  • sprinklers to protect in place;
  • fire rated safe havens adjoining the stairs to bring the children into and to hold until it is safe to evacuate;
  • a dedicated stair where possible (or in the case of a rooftop podium, one stair that does not serve floors above the childcare);
  • foldable cots to put children into at the external safe area (the safe holding of children in appropriate assembly areas needs to be part of the evacuation strategy);
  • carry vests to bring babies down the stairs;
  • stair re-entry to allow childcare workers back into the building;
  • low level handrails in the stairs; and
  • even improved stair cleaning regimes so that children do not hold up evacuations to stop and look at their dirty hands;
  • the building’s automatic evacuation sequencing may need to be amended to consider fire location, such that the childcare may be evacuated first where it's the fire floor or if the fire floor is below them, but evacuated last for a fire in floors above.

The answers are not necessarily easy, and each case will be different, but they do need to be considered as part of a holistic fire safety strategy.

What the ABCB is doing in response to this

Fortunately, both nationally and internationally there have been no cases of serious fires in childcare facilities in high rise buildings. This may explain why other countries do not have additional fires safety requirements for childcare facilities in high rise buildings. Therefore, evidence relating to the current problem, in order to develop specific solutions, is not available. As a first step, the ABCB will consider the potential fire safety risks that children are exposed to and will work with industry and other key stakeholders to address any identified deficiencies in the NCC. It is important to note that the NCC may not be the only solution and other options such as those relating to evacuation strategies, staff to children ratios and the location of childcare facilities may also contribute to safer outcomes.

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