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Area of Refuge Signs: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What does Area of Refuge mean?

An area of refuge is a designated emergency area/location in a building to keep occupants safe until help arrives. The International Building Code (IBC) defines it as “an area where persons unable to use stairways can remain temporarily to await instructions or assistance during emergency evacuation.” Area of refuge is useful when evacuation is not possible for people who require assistance in an emergency like a fire. It is a safe place until a rescue team like firefighters arrive at the location. Such locations are lifesavers for patients in a hospital, unwell individuals, people with disabilities and their attendants, older people, or children or infants.

Q. Does the International Building Code require an area of refuge in a building?


The IBC states all specifications of an Area of Refuge in its Chapter 10 (Means of Egress). Particularly, Section 1009 specifies that accessible means of egress are required for accessible spaces. Further, it lists “Area of Refuge” as one of the components that can act as an accessible means of egress. 

Following places can be made Area of Refuge - 

  1. 1. Stairwell – the stairwell must be enclosed.
  2. 2. Elevator – elevator in the lobby must be equipped with standby power.
  3. 3. Horizontal exit – an exit like a fire-resistant wall that separates Room A from Room B. Room B serves as the Area of Refuge.

All new buildings with barriers to exit must have an Area of Refuge to offer protection and communication.

Q. What should be the dimensions of an area of refuge?


As per IBC Section 1009.6.3, the size of an Area of Refuge shall accommodate one wheelchair of 30 x 52 inch for each 200 occupants that the means of egress serves or a portion thereof, based on the occupant load.

We recommend that you check with your local or state building codes to find out the exact requirements for the area of refuge in your building. 

Q. What does an area of refuge sign signify?


Area of Refuge Signs inform about location of “area of refuge” to the building occupants. Area of Refuge signage is required according to the International Building Code (IBC) 2009 to the current year of the code. 

Signs for Outside Your Area of Refuge

Outside the area of refuge, directional signs are required indicating the location of the area of refuge. Additionally, a tactile sign may be required at the entrance to the refuge area to indicate the location for easy accessibility by the visually impaired.

Signs for Inside Your Area of Refuge

The inside of your area of refuge should include instructional signage. This is used to show individuals how to use emergency communication for help.

Q. Which buildings are not required to have an area of refuge?


Existing buildings are not required to make alterations to comply with the International Building Code. Among the new construction, buildings are not required to have an area of refuge when both of these criteria are met:

  1. 1. The building is equipped with a supervised automated sprinkler system
  2. 2. The building has an ADA-compliant, wheelchair-accessible route to exit the building.

It is also mentioned in the IBC Section 1009 that Area of Refuge is not required - 

  • -At the exit access stairway where two-way communication is provided at the elevator landing.
  • - At stairways/elevators serving open parking garages
  • - At smoke-protected, open-air assembly seating areas
  • - At stairways in Group R-2 occupancies
  • - At stairways/elevators accessed from a refuge area in conjunction with a horizontal exit.
  • - At elevators, not required to be in a shaft

Q. What are the mounting height requirements for Area of Refuge Signs?


The Area of Refuge illuminated sign shall be mounted above 60-inches but below 80-inches from the floor to the top of the sign at the entrance to the Area of Refuge.

The Area of Refuge tactile signage shall be mounted between 48” - 60” from the floor to the lowest tactile characters at the entrance to the Area of Refuge.

The Area of Refuge instruction signage shall be mounted above or adjacent to each Call Box in the stairwell.

Q. Are there any ADA requirements for area of refuge signs?


Yes. Area of refuge signage is required by building codes and Chapter 4 of the American with Disability Act (ADA). ADA sets requirements for tactile and visual characters for the area of refuge signs.

  • ADA requires that signs identifying “permanent rooms and spaces” like “Area of Refuge” meet tactile and visual criteria (§216.2).
  • Tactile signs must include compliant raised characters and braille characters and be located at doors 48” to 60” above the floor or ground (§703.2).
  • Signs providing direction to the Area of Refuge must comply as visual signs but not as tactile signs. 

Tactile Braille signage is required at each door to an Area of Refuge and exterior area for assisted rescue, complying with ICC A117.1.

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