Fire Prevention 52: Fire Safety for People with Disabilities

By Kathy Komatz, Structural Fire Training Specialist

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Dating back to 1945, this national campaign is about raising the awareness of disability employment challenges. Understanding that the National Park Service has a very diverse workforce that includes many special populations, the need to address fire safety at the workplace and in our housing for all groups is extremely relevant.

Special populations are at risk for a number of reasons:

  • 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 individuals can take to protect themselves from the dangers of fire may require help from a caretaker, neighbor, or outside source.

If you are injured or very ill, these tips could be of interest to you as well as your mobility and situational awareness may be less than usual.

Special populations such as older adults, people with physical or mental disabilities, the deaf or hard of hearing, and the visually impaired can significantly increase their chances of surviving a fire by practicing proven fire safety precautions.

It is vitally important to make and practice escape plans:

  • Involve a building manager, family member, or a trusted friend when practicing your fire escape plan.
  • If you use a service animal, practice your fire escape plan with them.
  • Identify at least two viable exits from every room.
  • Use a bedroom on the ground floor, as close to an exit as possible.
  • If you use a walker or wheelchair, check all exits to make sure you can get through.
  • If necessary, have a ramp available for emergency exits.
  • Practice opening locked or barred doors, windows, and screens.
  • If a fire occurs, do not waste any time saving property. Leave the building immediately. Once out, stay out.

Inform others of your special needs:

  • Contact your park or local fire department on a non-emergency telephone number and explain your special needs.
  • The local fire department may be able to help you with your escape plan, perform a home fire safety inspection, and offer suggestions about smoke alarm placement and maintenance.
  • Ask your local dispatch to keep your special needs information on file so it is accessible to emergency responders.

Install and maintain smoke alarms:

  • Install working smoke alarms on every level of your home. It will dramatically increase your chances of survival in case of a fire.
  • People with disabilities should be aware that special fire safety devices are available, including 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 for assistance.
  • Smoke alarm batteries need to be tested every month and changed twice a year. If you can't reach the test button on your smoke alarm, ask someone to test it for you.

Fire Info for You

Employees

Use the following references that apply to you:
Fire Safety Education for People with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Fire Risks for the Blind or Visually Impaired
Fire Risks for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing
Fire Risks for the Mobility Impaired

NFPA's Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities was developed with input from the disability community. The guide includes a checklist that facilities and housing managers and people with disabilities can use to design a personalized evacuation plan. The annexes in the document give government resources and information based on the relevant code requirements and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) criteria.

Prevention Web's Workplace Safety for People with Disabilities information sheet includes information on emergency planning, suggested evacuation aids, drills and training, and practicing and maintaining workplace escape plans.

NFPA has put together a tip sheet on home safety for working with facilities management, the park or local fire department, and other residents on safe evacuation, and information on evacuation aids and emergency preparation. Although it is titled, Mid-Level and High-Rise Apartment Safety for People with Disabilities, everyone can benefit from the information.

NFPA's senior building code specialist speaks on safety challenges and fire safety issues for the disabled.

NFPA reports physical disability as a factor in home fire deaths

Firefighters
Conduct training or briefings on fire scenarios involving people with disabilities.

Park Leadership
Ensure that your workplace and housing facilities are fire safe for ALL of your employees.

Take Action

If you or a family member is disabled, if you have disabled employees, or you are a facilities or housing manager, quickly increase your awareness about fire safety for people with disabilities at these websites: FEMA and NFPA.

NPS Fire Facts

The U.S. Fire Administration reports that:

  • The elderly continue to experience a disproportionate share of fire deaths. Older adults, aged 65 and older, represent 13 percent of the U.S. population but suffer more than 30 percent of all fire deaths.
  • An estimated 1,700 residential building fires involving individuals with mental disabilities occur in the U.S. each year and cause an estimated 85 deaths, 250 injuries, and $61 million in total loss.
  • An estimated 700 residential building fires involving individuals with physical disabilities are reported to U.S. fire departments each year and cause an estimated 160 deaths, 200 injuries, and $26 million in total loss.