Get me out of here
With a lofty disdain for the rhythms of the rest of the country, the University of Cambridge treats May Day bank holiday as a normal working day. I had planned to use it for some real academic brain work – more precisely for finessing the footnotes of a book due at the publishers weeks ago. In the event, I spent most of it wrestling with the tricky problems of “evac-chairs”.
For the uninitiated, these are the strange contraptions you now find dotted around the upper floors of public buildings, fixed to the wall, covered with yellow plastic and bearing forbidding notices: “Only to be used by trained personnel”. They are supposed to help get the “differently mobiled” downstairs in an emergency.
I am currently Chairman (sic) of my Faculty. And that means in my own small patch of the ivory tower (a serviceable, but frankly undistinguished building designed by Hugh Casson in the 1970s), when it comes to Health and Safety the buck stops with me. To put it bluntly: if something nasty happens on site, it’s me that has to face the coroner.
This thought induces uncharacteristic behaviour. I find myself touring the building at weekends taping down potentially lethal flexes, while looking askance at the poisonous mould growing in abandoned coffee cups. And this is where the evac-chairs come in.
On the first floor of our building is a museum of 600 or so plaster casts of ancient sculpture, open to the public. We are now legally obliged to provide an emergency exit for disabled visitors should the lift be out of action. So we install these evac-chairs, which miraculously (if you’re trained) let you wheel someone down a flight of steps, as simply as down a ramp. And we train up the post-graduate students who sometimes man the museum during lunch breaks..
So far, so good. But then someone wonders what happens to any other of our disabled users – not museum visitors, but the odd scholar, student, or academic just happening to be passing through. Are the evac-chairs for them too? This is where the problems kick in.
Plan A was to have all the disabled report to reception on arrival while a trained student evac-chair operator was found and alerted. A fine idea on paper. But what if the noble post-grads who took the training to rescue the occasional museum visitor while they were on duty, didn’t actually fancy having the responsibility for braving the flames and rescuing all-comers?
And what happens if you can’t find a trained operator? Politely turn the disabled visitor away? That not only contravenes Disability Discrimination legislation; it provokes implacable fury in my rickety octogenarian retired colleagues, who have toddled along to the building for years and are not going to be told that, for want of an evac-chair operator, they can’t go upstairs.
But now I’ve discovered another hitch. Our post-grads have, it seems, been trained in manipulating the chairs down the stairs, but not in placing the passenger into the chair. That requires a different “manual handling” course (what other sort of “handling” is there, I pedantically wonder). Imagine it. The flames are already lapping, and they must say: “I’m afraid I may only to rescue you, if you can get in the chair yourself”.
The compromise we’ve hammered out today is to give every disabled visitor a plan of the building marking the location of each evac chair and advising that, in the event of a conflagration, they wait there for the fire-brigade -- who will turn up presumably with their own evac gadgets anyway.
Of course, it’s too easy to laugh at “Health and Safety”. But in this case, someone has made a tidy profit (5 evac chairs at almost £1000 a piece) and we’re in exactly the same position as we were before. And, unless I’ve missed something, no-one is demonstrably safer.
And my footnotes? They’re waiting till tomorrow.