Evacuation guidance: People at risk

Control Measure Knowledge

This control measure should be read in conjunction with:


Evacuation is the immediate and urgent movement of people away from a threatened or existing hazard. Successful evacuation can save lives and reduce risks to operational personnel and people at risk.

Evacuation guidance can be given in the following circumstances:

  • When people at risk are not trapped but should immediately evacuate because they are being affected by the hazard
  • When people at risk are not trapped but the hazard conditions are worsening and remaining in their current location may cause harm to people at risk or lead them to become trapped
  • When survival guidance is being given and, through continuous evaluation of information received from the incident ground, it is no longer safe for people at risk to stay where they are and evacuation must be attempted to enhance the chances of survival
  • When the building that people at risk are in is known to have a simultaneous evacuation strategy

It is the responsibility of fire control personnel to use effective emergency call management techniques to identify whether people at risk cannot evacuate and require survival guidance. Where it is identified that an evacuation route is available, people at risk should be advised to ‘Get out and stay out’.

People at risk should attempt to safely move away from the hazard as soon as possible to avoid injury. Evacuation should take place using the nearest safest exit. When the nearest exit is compromised and cannot be used, alternative exits should be explored with people at risk.

People at risk may need to evacuate due to:

  • An act of terrorism
  • The actual or threatened release of hazardous substances
  • Fire
  • An unstable or collapsed structure
  • A risk of explosion
  • Severe weather, including widespread flooding
  • Environmental contamination
  • Transport incidents

There may be a delay in people at risk evacuating: they may be physically able to evacuate, but they may believe they cannot do so – in which case they may take actions before evacuating that result in a delay – or they may choose not to. This could be due to:

  • Normal evacuation routes or exits being locked or blocked
  • Injuries sustained or physical limitations
  • Attempting to rescue, or being unwilling to leave, another person, animal or possession
  • Emotional distress or fear
  • Religious, cultural or social beliefs
  • An attempt to minimise or stop the hazard
  • Alerting other people who are at risk about the hazard
  • Misunderstanding or miscommunication about evacuation strategy or policies

Techniques to assist evacuation

Some people at risk may be reluctant to leave when told to do so because they perceive that the conditions outside their current location are more hazardous. Fire control personnel should make every effort to fully explore the situation and encourage people at risk to follow the guidance being given. Explaining the benefits of evacuating and informing people at risk what they can expect when they evacuate may help to encourage them to do so. For example:

  • ‘There are firefighters outside who will help’
  • ‘They may give you something to help you breathe better’
  • ‘There is less smoke outside’

Information about the benefits of evacuating should be accurate and should not be based on assumptions, therefore confirmation should be sought from operational personnel before the advice is given.

There may be people at risk who, due to their culture or religious beliefs, may be unwilling to follow the advice or guidance given by fire control personnel or they may take actions that result in a delay in evacuating. This may be due to:

  • An unwillingness to leave behind a sacred or holy item
  • An unwillingness to treat a sacred or holy item in a way that is deemed disrespectful
  • Getting dressed appropriately before evacuating
  • Refusal to speak to fire control personnel of the opposite sex

Some sacred or holy items are seen as living things and are treated with the same respect as a human. There may be occasions where people at risk would prefer to be in an unsafe environment and put themselves at additional risk than to treat a religious or sacred item in a way that is deemed disrespectful. This is recognised behaviour in an emergency situation and may result in people not carrying out the actions asked of them.

While the desire to get dressed before evacuating is not confined to people who follow a specific religion, people whose religious beliefs include dressing in a specific way may be more likely to resist evacuation before doing so. Within some religions, being seen without specific items of clothing may be deemed as disrespectful.

During situations where people are delaying or refusing to evacuate due to their cultural or religious beliefs, the same encouraging approach that explains the benefits of evacuating should be used. Continual reinforcement of the need to evacuate should be applied.

People at risk who will not evacuate may be given advice on how best to protect themselves. Information about the caller’s specific location should be passed to operational personnel. In such situations consideration should be given to the provision of fire survival guidance.

Behaviours of people during evacuation

Research into crowd behaviour has identified some generic behaviours regarding evacuation:

  • Family members prefer to evacuate as a group, and will delay their exit until all family members are ready
  • Parents are more likely to put the safety of their children first
  • Groups of friends prefer to evacuate together

It should be recognised that these behaviours may result in slow or delayed evacuation, and that guidance or encouragement by fire control personnel to do things differently may be ignored.

When evacuating, people at risk should be encouraged to make other people aware of the hazard by actuating any available alarms or alert systems. However, raising the alarm should not delay evacuation and should not place anyone at any additional risk.

For further information, refer to the Cabinet Office publication: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/understanding-crowd-behaviours-documents

Alternative means of exit

When people at risk perceive they cannot evacuate due to normal exits being locked or blocked, they may be able to evacuate via alternative exits, such as:

  • Windows
  • Balconies
  • Doors or stairs

When evacuating through a window, consideration needs to be given to the:

  • Height of the window
  • Who or what is outside and below the window

When evacuation through a window is required, efforts should be made to use windows on the ground floor or windows with stable ground beneath them, such as a flat roof.

As a last resort, and in case of imminent danger, escape can be made from a first-floor window, climbing out feet first and lowering to arm’s length before dropping from the window. Where dropping to a hard surface, soft objects such as bedding should be used to break the fall.

If more than one adult is trapped with a child or children and they are required to leave the premises via a window, one adult should leave first and the children passed down before any other adults leave.

If a window cannot be opened, a firm blow aimed at the corner of the pane with a hard, sharp object will help to break the glass. Glass left at the edges should be knocked out and, if possible, sharp edges should be covered to prevent injury. Before advising people at risk to break a window, consideration should be given to anyone who may be below the window and could be injured by falling glass. Where possible, people at risk should avoid standing in front of the window due to the risk of exploding glass. Careful consideration should be given when advising people at risk to break a window, as once the glass is broken it cannot be undone.

People at risk assisting others during evacuation

Where people at risk cannot evacuate due to injuries sustained or their physical limitations, other people may be able to aid their evacuation. People typically remain structured, organised, helpful, co-operative and co-ordinated during evacuations, and they are usually willing to help. Nevertheless, it may be appropriate to prompt people to assist, provided that it does not put them at any additional risk.

The severity or location of the hazard may change as an incident develops or the longer the person is at risk. This may result in:

  • Operational personnel being unable to rescue people who are trapped
  • A requirement to change the advice or evacuation guidance that was initially given by fire control personnel

Changes in evacuation strategy

If operational personnel cannot rescue people who are trapped and immediate evacuation is required, even in difficult conditions, the incident commander should communicate this immediately to the fire control commander.

Due to the potential level of activity in fire control, calls to non-emergency lines may not be answered. Therefore, direct contact with the fire control commander to discuss a change in evacuation strategy should take place using either:

  • An appropriate radio channel, or
  • A direct line that is assigned the appropriate level of priority, for example a fire control commander’s mobile phone or another priority line

Any telephone numbers that may be used to communicate directly with fire control and the fire control commander should be available to operational personnel and incident commanders.

Due to the impact on the advice and guidance given by fire control personnel to people at risk, any decision to change an evacuation strategy should be made in consultation with the fire control commander and should not be implemented on the incident ground until such a consultation has taken place. Miscommunication or misunderstanding regarding changes to an evacuation strategy can lead to a delay in evacuation and fire control personnel giving incorrect advice to people at risk.

Where reasonably practicable, methods to assist the self-evacuation of people at risk while having minimal impact on operational activities should be discussed with operational personnel. This may include:

  • The location of operational activities taking place
  • Preferred egress routes, such as specific staircases to use or avoid
  • Any protective equipment or strategies that are being used to assist with evacuation

The fire control commander should communicate any changes to an evacuation strategy to all fire control personnel as soon as possible. This communication may be electronic or verbal, and confirmation that fire control personnel have received and understood the information should be recorded within the incident log.

A change in evacuation strategy may mean the initial advice given by fire control personnel to people at risk is no longer appropriate. In such situations, attempts should be made to contact all known people at risk to give them the updated evacuation advice. This includes:

  • People at risk who were told it should be safe to stay where they are as they were not experiencing effects from the hazard
  • Survival guidance callers with whom fire control personnel are no longer in contact

Clear and direct instructions will leave people at risk in no doubt as to what action should be taken. A consistent approach to the guidance and instruction given by fire control personnel should result in people at risk receiving the same information. This includes:

  • Who is calling, for example fire service, fire brigade or fire control
  • The instruction to be given, for example you must immediately evacuate or leave
  • A reason for the instruction being given, for example the hazard or the conditions have deteriorated or are deteriorating
  • Preferred exit routes, if known
  • Guidance to help with safe evacuation

If contact with a person at risk cannot be made, a voicemail should be left, or as a last resort a SMS text message sent, containing the time of the call and clear and direct instructions describing the action they should take if they hear the message.

When remaining in an environment reduces the likelihood of people at risk surviving and their only option is to evacuate, the severity of the situation should be made clear to people at risk and that evacuation is their only option for survival.

For guidance on providing information about a change of advice to multiple people refer to Control measure – Recontacting multiple people at risk to provide a change of advice.

Communal buildings and modes of transport

Where people at risk are within a communal building or mode of transport, they should initially follow the evacuation guidance provided by the transport operators or the building owners. This may include finding emergency exits on public transport or in public buildings and following evacuation policies and procedures.

Strategic Actions

Tactical Actions