Area of Refuge in upstate New York: more than just shelter from a six-month snow season.

I generally try to avoid two consecutive posts in the same state, but I can’t help myself this time around.  And frankly, the location—the geography, the jurisdiction—isn’t really all that significant.  Though these images come from upstate New York (as the title indicates), the issues that they raise could just as easily be anywhere in the country.  Because the laws that have affected these outcomes are federal; they’re nationwide.

As frequently as I have covered issues of disabled access, both indoors and outdoors (and somewhere in-between), I have to admit that I rarely encounter the image below.  And, when I first saw this one in a hotel in Seneca Falls, New York, I didn’t know what to think.

Area of Refuge in a Seneca Falls NY hotel

No, it’s not the near-universal wheelchair logo, which (at last in the US) has received a somewhat recent “speed demon” revamp.  It’s the phrase next to it: Area of Refuge.  It’s a rare indicator but it does pop up now and then, and it’s semantically different from the logo, though the two signals are not mutually exclusive.

An Area of Refuge offers physical (and, as a consequence, legal) indemnification across any country that requires it, and it’s a stipulation within the International Building Code (IBC).  This website offers a succinct enough summary: it’s a place in multi-level buildings where people who cannot use stairways can wait for help in the event of an emergency.  The emergency in question is most likely a fire, though it would certainly behoove the construction contractors to also remain cognizant of the risk of tornado-strength winds (even in a place less prone to tornados, like most of New York State).  So, while the handicapped logo usually indicates overt disabled provisions (including a means of egress), when that isn’t available because of a fire emergency, the stairwell is the next best thing.  It’s usually the sturdiest part of a building.

All new commercial construction must have Areas of Refuge, unless the proposed building meets both of two exemptions: it has a supervised automated sprinkler system, and it features an ADA-compatible means of egress out and away from the building.  Given that virtually no buildings over two stories will meet the second criteria (the notion of wheelchair friendly ramps protruding from a fourth floor is ridiculous), a multi-story hotel such as the one featured here in Seneca Falls is going to have such an Area of Refuge.  Yes, this hotel (part of a well-known national chain) has an elevator, but elevators do not function in most emergencies; fire exits always involve a non-motorized means of egress.  And no, this hotel (which looks like construction from the 2000s) is not old enough to predate the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act: it can not claim the grandfather clause as an exemption, and that wouldn’t likely work anyway.  Most commercial buildings—even those with protections on the National Register of Historic Places—must install reasonable accommodations for persons in wheelchairs.  At the very least, the first floor should feature fully handicapped-accessible rooms.

I suppose a few bigger questions with an Area of Refuge still persist.  Why wouldn’t a hotel try to accommodate persons in wheelchairs entirely on the first floor?  Well, chances are that they do try.  But wheelchair-friendly hotel rooms do require different interior features and often significantly larger bathrooms; even the Area of Refuge stipulated here mandates an accommodating space of 30“ by 48”—those stairwells need to have sufficient floor clearance for the person to wait safely for a rescue crew.  And it is not always easy to accommodate these unusual bathroom sizes all on one floor; it’s far more practical to “stack” the unusual layouts on multiple floors, with big bathrooms built atop one another, recognizing that the elevator will ensure equitable access.  According to the IBC, a building must have at least one wheelchair-friendly space for every 200 occupants served by a particular means of egress.  And every additional 500 occupants requires an additional means of egress, with occupant loads below 500 (but above 30) having a minimum of two compatible exits.

And the remaining big question: why don’t we see these signs more frequently?  At last, here’s an answer that indicates state-specific policies at play.  Many states evidently don’t require signs to specifically demarcate the Area of Refuge, but New York apparently does.  The state has its own niche industry to accommodate these signs in hotels.  Those who routinely stay in Empire State lodgings and use the stairwells would probably notice these signs that to me seemed like a novelty and an outlier.  Note that I qualify this with all sorts of adverbs: apparently, evidently, probably.  I haven’t found the specific clause that requires this in New York, but one of the private companies I cite here suggests that “Area of Refuge” signs are required in many states.  So why are these signs so rare?  Either most states don’t enforce the law, or the business is taking liberties in describing these state-level mandates.  Regardless, the hotel Area of Refuge is probably fundamental across much of the country (where states or localities have adopted that provision in the IBC), but most states do not require an overt display or don’t enforce such a display.  Or maybe it’s just a quirk to this particular hotel.

Regardless, it’s a feature specific to multi-level hotels—not motels, which, by definition are single story.  (It’s amazing how late in life I learned that a true motel allows customers to drive up right to the entrance of their room.  I unconsciously assumed this, but I didn’t know it.)  As my cited website (Upside Innovations) indicates, “single-story buildings that are level with grade do not have to have refuge areas because everybody can exit on their own.”  So where does that leave this motel in upstate New York?

The sidewalk also serves as the curb that separates vehicles from the recessed entrances to rooms.  It’s all one level, and it’s a motel, so areas of refuge simply aren’t applicable in the same way as the Seneca Falls example.  But that doesn’t make this place 100% accessible.  The brown brick and the horizontal slit windows might offer enough architectural cues: this place undoubtedly predates the 1990 passage of the ADA.  It’s from at least the 1970s, and it shows.  Far in the distance, near the opposite end of the sidewalk from where I stood to take this photo, a ramp is protruding from one of the recesses.  Can you see it?

If not, the concept should be obvious in the photo below.

It’s a low-budget and inelegant solution, but this low-budget motel was otherwise not compliant with modern accessibility standards.  Each room’s entrance has a single step, which precludes access for wheelchairs.  The obvious solution was to build ramps, but the hotel only applied this feature to select rooms, thereby meeting the minimum requirements for accessibility—the minimum percentage of rooms offer these accommodations.  This approach makes the hotel operating seem like skinflints, but the interior is a whole different consideration.  Are the bathrooms big enough to allow wheelchair entry and space to pivot?  Do the toilets and bathtubs offer wall mounted bars for individuals to stabilize themselves?  Do the doors feature enough clearance for a person to open them, pull backward, then maneuver all the way through?  I didn’t conduct an audit of this motel’s interior.  I’m not qualified to do this anyway, and I probably don’t know enough about some of the arcane rules.  But the complexities of building codes, even the most universal and federally mandated among them, show that the bottom-up response is far more complicated than three simple words pasted next to a wheelchair guy.  Or a plywood ramp.

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