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Stairwell Evacuation from Buildings: What We Know We Don't Know



Richard D. Peacock, Jason D. Averill, Erica D. Kuligowski


Occupant descent down stairwells during building evacuations is typically described by measureable engineering variables such as stairwell geometry, speed, density, and pre-evacuation delay. In turn, predictive models of building evacuation use these variables to predict the performance of egress systems for building design, emergency planning, or event reconstruction. This paper provides a summary of literature values for movement speeds and compares these to several new re drill evacuations. Movement speeds in the current study are observed to be quite similar to the range of literature values. Perhaps most importantly though, the typical engineering parameters are seen to explain only a small fraction of the observed variance in occupant movement speeds. This suggests that traditional measures form an incomplete theory of people movement in stairs. Additional research to better understand the physiological and behavioural aspects of the evacuation process and the difference between fire drill evacuations and real fire emergencies are needed.
Technical Note (NIST TN) - 1624
Report Number


evacuation, egress, modeling, theory


Peacock, R. , Averill, J. and Kuligowski, E. (2009), Stairwell Evacuation from Buildings: What We Know We Don't Know, Technical Note (NIST TN), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD, [online], (Accessed June 15, 2024)


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Created June 12, 2009, Updated February 19, 2017