Photo showing Upside Innovations Team Working in Warehouse

Area of Refuge vs. Area of Rescue Requirements

CTA for Expert quote from Upside Innovations

Call (513) 889-2492

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Area of Refuge vs. Area of Rescue

The main distinction between the two is: an Area of Refuge is an interior a safe waiting space for people during an emergency evacuation while Area of Rescue is exterior. 

The information in this guide references the International Building Code 1009.6 and International Building Code 1009.7

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. An Area of Refuge should be equipped with a form of communication, such as an intercom or a two-way communication device. This allows individuals to get in contact with emergency personnel to notify them that they are in the Area of Refuge and request assistance.

Area of Rescue?

An Area of Rescue is well-known as Exterior Areas for Assisted Rescue, it should be open to the outside air. The area must be no less than 50% open to minimize the accumulation of smoke or toxic gases. The exterior walls that separate the interior building from the Exterior Area of Assistance Rescue should have a minimum fire-resistance for 1 hour.

Stairways that are a means of egress for the Exterior Area of Assisted Rescue should provide a clear minimum width of 48 inches between the handrails. This minimum width is not required when protected by a sprinkler system.

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″. Each Exterior Area for Assisted Rescue should also be sized to accommodate wheelchair spaces of this size.

Area of refuge dimensions

Is my building required to have an Area of Refuge/Rescue?

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.

An Exterior Area of Assisted Rescue on an exterior landing should be provided when the exit discharge does not include an accessible route from the level of exit discharge to a public way.

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, interior area of refuge, or exterior area of rescue.

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?

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 or Rescue 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 Rescue must be fire-resistant.


These areas of egress 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 and Rescue.