Evacuation from fire in high-rise residential buildings: A rapid evidence review

In March 2020 The Home Office commissioned NatCen to carry out this rapid evidence review.
View of high rise building UK

In March 2020 the Home Office commissioned the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) to produce a synthesis of existing academic evidence regarding fire evacuation in high-rise residential buildings.

About the study

The purpose of this review was to summarise and assess the strength of academic evidence on fire evacuations from high-rise residential buildings in the UK. The review sought to identify any weaknesses and gaps in the current evidence base, and answer the following research questions:

  • What are the most effective methods of evacuation from fires in high-rise residential buildings?
  • How do occupants make decisions about fire evacuation from high-rise residential buildings?
  • How do firefighters make decisions about evacuating occupants from high-rise residential buildings?


  • The review found the availability of evidence on effective methods of fire evacuation in high-rise residential buildings to be significantly limited. Of that which is available, the evidence suggests that when evacuation is necessary no single strategy is universally appropriate for high-rise residential buildings. Instead, every high-rise residential building should have a fire evacuation plan individual to each building, developed in full consideration of the building design, the composition of occupants and, crucially, the presence, or indeed absence, of effective compartmentation.
  • Considering the limited evidence base, the findings of this review tentatively suggest that, when evacuation is necessary and effective fire safety arrangements such as compartmentation are in place, phased and partial evacuation strategies (such as ‘defend-in-place’ and ‘delayed evacuation’) are safer than simultaneous evacuation within high-rise residential settings. The evidence also identified the importance of delayed evacuation for those unable to evacuate unassisted, and the need to ensure exit routes and refuge areas are safe and effective. The success of phased, partial and delayed evacuation strategies, however, depends on effective compartmentation and other building design features, as well as good communication systems to provide occupants with sufficient and ongoing information.
  • There is limited evidence that explores occupant decision-making during high-rise residential fires. Of that which is available, evidence suggests occupants do not immediately evacuate upon recognising fire cues. Both UK and international studies also suggests occupants of high-rise residential settings are reluctant to use lifts during fire evacuation.
  • There is a significant lack of evidence on how firefighters make decisions on evacuating occupants from high-rise residential buildings in the event of a fire. Of the limited evidence available, most is non-UK based and focused on the decision-making of firefighters in general, rather than specifically in high-rise residential settings.


This review was undertaken using a rapid evidence assessment (REA) design. The REA comprised three key stages:

  1. A literature searching stage to identify the nature, availability and range of evidence relevant to the research questions.
  2. A critical evaluation stage to evaluate the quality of evidence.
  3. An extraction and synthesis stage to extract and summarise data thematically

The review focused on peer reviewed academic research published since 1985 through to July 2020. This was to ensure identified UK research was published in line with the building regulations brought into law that year. Given the limited evidence base, the review included non-UK research, and some research relevant to non-high rise and non-residential settings.