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Area of Refuge Requirements

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What is an Area of Refuge?

An Area of Refuge is a safe waiting space for people during an emergency evacuation

The information in this guide references the International Building Code 1009.6

Area of Refuge?

The International Building Code (IBC) defines it as “an area where persons unable to use stairways can remain temporarily to await instructions or assistance during an emergency evacuation.” For example, people in wheelchairs or elderly people would have difficulties going down the stairs, so they need an area where they can wait for help.

These waiting areas must be fire-resistant and protected from smoke, so people can safely wait for emergency responders.

What are the dimensions?

The Area of Refuge size determines how many wheelchair spaces your building requires. One wheelchair space is a minimum of 30″ x 48″.

Area of refuge dimensions

Is my building required to have an Area of Refuge?

The IBC requires that all new construction must comply with the most current regulations, which require an Area of Refuge. Existing buildings are not required to make alterations to comply with IBC. The only time new construction is not required to have refuge areas is if both of the following are true:

  1. The building has a supervised automated sprinkler system
  2. Has a wheelchair-friendly route (i.e. ADA ramp system) out and away from the building.

Single-story buildings that are level with grade do not have to have refuge areas because everybody can exit the building on their own.

How many areas do I need?

First, for any building that is above grade or has multiple floors, you will need to determine how many means of egress paths you need.

The required number of means of egress paths are determined by the occupant load:

Occupant LoadRequired Means of Egress

The only exception to this rule applies when a business has 30 occupants or less AND the distance to an exit is no more than 75 feet.

According to the code, you will need at least two of the means of egress to be accessible from any area that can be accessed by somebody in a wheelchair.

An accessible means of egress means it is a way for somebody in a wheelchair to get outside or wait safely for help. It can consist of an elevator, platform lift, ramp, or interior or exterior area of refuge.

In order to be considered “accessible”, a stairway between stories will need to incorporate an Area of Refuge unless there is an automatic sprinkler system.

How many wheelchair spaces do I need?

Within an Area of Refuge, you may need to have multiple wheelchair spaces. IBC requires that you have one 30″ x 48″ wheelchair space for every 200 occupants that the means of egress serves. A wheelchair space cannot block access in or out of more than one adjacent wheelchair space.

wheelchair space requirements

Where are they required?

The following areas can be designated as an Area of Refuge:

  1. Stairwell – the stairwell must be enclosed.
  2. Elevator lobby – elevator in the lobby must be equipped with standby power.
  3. Horizontal exit – a horizontal exit can act as an Area of Refuge. A horizontal exit is a fire-resistant wall that separates an area into two areas. For example, if a fire started in Room A, a horizontal exit would have a fire-resistant wall that separated Room A from Room B. Room B serves as the Area of Refuge.
Area of Refuge Horizontal exit

If you are unable to have an accessible means of egress (i.e. ADA ramp) down to the ground, you must have an Area of Refuge at either of the following locations EVEN IF the building has a sprinkler system:

  1. Interior side of an exit door – it must be enclosed by fire-resistant, interior wall.
  2. Exterior side of an exit door – the exterior wall adjacent to the Area of Refuge must be fire-resistant.
Interior and exterior area of refuge

Areas of Refuge are necessary to give all building occupants a safe route during an emergency. View the United States Access Board: Chapter 4 for more details on means of egress and Areas of Refuge.