MoD fire `cupboards' anger disabled staff

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The Independent Online
Disabled employees of the Ministry of Defence are alarmed at plans to shut them in "cupboards" if a fire breaks out. The scheme would leave them in fire-resistant rooms to await rescue while able-bodied colleagues are evacuated from blazing office blocks.

Official minutes of a meeting on refurbishment of MoD offices in Glasgow state: "There are to be fireproof areas, similar to large cupboards, where disabled persons will be placed for safekeeping during a fire."

An MoD spokeswoman yesterday confirmed that the rooms were in use in many of the ministry's offices, but said describing them as cupboards was "unfortunate".

The Labour MP Alf Morris - a former minister for the disabled - yesterday asked Michael Portillo, Secretary of State for Defence, for a Commons statement on the rooms.

Mr Morris said it was difficult to see how the scheme could ensure the safety of wheelchair users. He stressed: "I am concerned that disabled people left in a blazing building will still be vulnerable. It is difficult to envisage how, in the case of a fire that becomes an inferno, there will be no risk to disabled people.''

The MoD spokeswoman insisted that the "sanctuaries" met safety standards, adding: "The use of the word cupboards is unfortunate. They are not like cupboards at all. They are like normal rooms with windows, but they have smoke-seals and double doors, each of which is worth half-an-hour's time.

"They are part of the emergency escape staircases, where there is a high level of protection from fire. If someone cannot get down the stairs in a hurry, they can go into the sanctuary to await the emergency services. It is standard practice to include these sanctuaries in office blocks and has been since, I think, 1988."

Steve Preston, of the civil servants' union NUCPS, which has protested to MoD management over the "sanctuaries", said: "We are very concerned. Management said that this is what they intend to do and we have told them we are not happy. They tell us that it has been approved by the local fire authorities but we are still very concerned for the safety of our members."