Todd is laying in bed and turned away from the bedside stand. His bed begins to vibrate, and strobe lights in the hallway and bedroom turn on and alert him of a dangerous fire situation.

He grabs his glasses and smartphone from the stand next to him and begins his response to the situation.

Todd is a person with a disability, but thanks to technology and preparation, he was ready for this fire situation that occurred at a moment’s notice.

By the Numbers

  • FEMA reports approximately 17,500 people are injured and 3,400 die because of fires annually.
  • The NPS reports that an estimated 1,700 residential building fires involving individuals with mental disabilities occur in the U.S. every year. These caused an estimated 85 deaths, 250 injuries, and $61 million in total loss.
  • NPS also reports 700 residential fires involving people with physical disabilities were reported to the U.S. fire departments every year. These caused an estimated 160 deaths, 200 injuries, and $26 million in total loss. 

No matter who you are, a fire threat is a real possibility. But the probability of a situation escalating is more likely for those with disabilities. The NFPA tells us that over 43 million Americans have a disability, so how do they properly prepare for an emergency?

What to Look Out For

Fire prevention looks the same in all circumstances. One of our previous guides highlights many of the dangers that a fire presents.

But the problem for people with disabilities is responding to a fire. Reaction time will be shorter and reflexes aren’t as quick. Those with a disability want to make sure they’re prepared to prevent a situation, and for proper response.

There’s five general disabilities that may influence reaction time:

  • Mobility
  • Visual
  • Hearing
  • Speech
  • Cognitive

The NFPA warns that people will need four elements of evacuation information:

  • Notification
  • Wayfinding
  • Use of the way
  • Assistance

These hazards may be present with older adults, younger kids, or loved ones and friends of any age with a disability.

How to Prepare

The safest place to live in the home is a ground floor by an exit, or any location that has easy access to an exit. Whether in an apartment or home, arrange for loved ones with disabilities to sleep on the first floor. Some apartments and homes have fire sprinklers. These can be installed but aren’t very common. They may buy some time, but aren’t a requirement.

The prevention basics:

  • Know two exits from every room.
  • Turn out all candles whenever you leave a room.
  • Don’t allow kids or animals to play near candles.
  • Practice opening locked or barred doors, windows, and screens.
  • Make sure that walkers and wheelchairs fit through exits and doorways.
  • Never use the oven to heat the home or other non-traditional heating devices.
  • Smoke alarms should be installed in every room. They should be on every floor of the house and outside of every sleeping area.
  • Test smoke alarms once a month, replace batteries once a year, and replace the entire smoke alarm system every 10 years.
  • The main culprit is the kitchen and cooking area. Never leave food unattended or cooking appliances on. Don’t wear loose fitting clothes while cooking.
  • Reach out to local fire departments so they can check out your escape plan, update it, and place your situation on file so they know how to respond to your home.

Important tip: Keep all important items like phone, wallet, glasses, and anything that you need for evacuation on a stand near the bed. This saves time when evacuating and ensures necessary items are in one location.

How to Respond

Fire response is generally the same in any situation, but the approach has additional details for those with disabilities.

Some necessary actions will depend on a caretaker, neighbor, or friend. Include these people when creating or practicing a fire plan. If a person with disabilities lives alone, it’s even more important that their plan has a point of contact with someone, or their contact has access to their security system to also be notified of an emergency.

Back to the Basics:

  • Never return to the home for valuables.
  • Install strobe lights that flash when an alarm sounds.
  • Put together an escape plan and include everyone, even service dogs, and practice it.
  • Install loud, low-pitched sound alert devices that can wake up people that are hard of hearing.
  • Smoke alarms and alert devices should be used for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Some of these even vibrate in the bed.

Helpful Tip: During a fire emergency, remember to “Get Low and Go,” the adage that reminds people to get low to the ground and move as quickly as possible toward an exit.

It’s important to know that people with disabilities do not want to lose their independence. They may neglect certain aspects of preparation or simply be unwilling to go along with them, because they fear that help is an attempt to take away their control.

When helping, be patient and prepare others for emergency while maintaining their independence. Your job as a caregiver, friend, or helper isn’t to take away independence, but to aid it.

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