Fire safety: People with disabilities

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Each year an estimated 2,655 deaths and 13,025 injuries occur as the result of residential building fires. The risk of death or injury from fire is even greater for people with physical, mental or sensory disabilities. Declining mobility, health, sight and hearing may limit a person’s ability to take the quick action necessary to escape during a fire emergency.

If you have a disability, you can increase your chances of surviving a fire by taking safety precautions such as making and practicing a home fire escape plan relevant to your needs and ensuring that working smoke alarms are installed on every level of the home.

Causes and circumstances of home fire deaths with physical disability (2003-2006)

• Physical disability was a contributing factor in an estimated average of 360 (13 percent) home fire deaths per year.

• 54 percent of the victims died as a result of home fires with working smoke alarms compared to only 37 percent of home fire victims overall.

• One-quarter of victims with physical disabilities were unable to act to save themselves.

• 53 percent of the victims were involved in ignition and in the area of origin when the incident began.

• Victims were more likely to die from a fire that began with either mattresses or bedding (20 percent versus 13 percent of all home fire victims) or clothing (12 percent versus 5 percent of all home victims).

Why are people with disabilities at risk?

• Decreased mobility, health, sight and hearing may limit a person’s ability to take the quick action necessary to escape during a fire emergency.

• Depending on physical limitations, many of the actions an individual can take to protect themselves from the dangers of fire may require help from a caretaker, neighbor or outside source.

• People with disabilities are typically fiercely independent and do not wish to alter their lives from those of the general public. However, this can lead them to ignore their special fire safety needs. In some cases, people with disabilities may need the help of a caregiver to practice proper fire safety precautions.

Have a sound fire safety and escape plan

Deaths resulting from failed emergency escapes are preventable. It is vitally important to make and practice escape plans. In the event of a fire, time is the biggest enemy and every second counts.

• Live near an exit: although you have the legal right to live where you choose, you’ll be safest on the ground floor if you live in an apartment building.

• Know at least two exits from every room.

• Plan your escape around your capabilities: make any necessary accommodations, such as providing exit ramps and widening doorways to facilitate an emergency escape.

• If you use a walker or wheelchair, check all exits to make sure they get through the doorways.

• Practice opening locked or barred doors and windows.

• Be sure your home address is clearly marked and visible from the street.

• Know which local emergency services are available and have those numbers posted or memorized.

• Inform others of your special needs: contact your local fire department on a non-emergency line and explain any special needs.

• Involve the assistance of a building manager, family member or an entrusted friend when practicing your fire escape plan.

• Unless instructed by the fire department, never use an elevator during a fire.

• When a fire occurs, do not waste any time saving property. Leave the home immediately. Once out, stay out!

Install and maintain smoke alarms

Working smoke alarms installed on every level of your home dramatically increase your chances of survival.

• People with physical disabilities should be aware of special fire safety devices that are available, such as smoke alarms with a vibrating pad or flashing light for the deaf or hard of hearing.

• In addition, smoke alarms with a strobe light outside the house can catch the attention of neighbors or others who might pass by.

• Test smoke alarm batteries every month and replace alkaline batteries at least once a year.

Don’t isolate yourself

People with disabilities have often been excluded from the development and practice of escape plans and fire safety drills. As a result, vital input is omitted and fire safety needs remain unfulfilled. Speak up to ensure that all parties receive the fire safety information that everyone deserves.

• Speak to your family members, building manager or neighbors about your fire safety plan and practice it with them.

• Keep a phone near your bed and be ready to call 911 or your local emergency number if a fire occurs.

Your local fire department can help you with your escape plan. Department personnel may also be able to perform a home fire safety inspection and offer suggestions about smoke alarm placement and maintenance. Ask emergency providers to keep your special needs information on file.

Michael Heath is president of the St. John Professional Firefighters Association.