Table of Contents
- Blindness or Low Vision
- Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing
- Physical Disabilities
- Cognitive Impairments
- Additional Resources
According to FEMA, each year approximately 17,500 people are injured and 3,400 die because of fire.1 There are dangers associated with fire for everyone, but people with disabilities face unique challenges in these emergencies. As FEMA notes, people with disabilities may have more difficulty escaping during a fire. In addition, some disabilities may prevent them from taking actions ahead of time without the help of a caregiver, friend or relative.2
Luckily, there are many resources available to help people with disabilities take precautions in the case of fire at home or work. Below is a resource guide created specifically for people with disabilities, with recommendations on how to prevent, prepare and recover from fire. Always remember your local firefighters are good resources for information.
Blindness or Low Vision
There are approximately 10 million visually impaired people in the U.S., and they are at a higher risk during emergencies because of their impairment.3 They can also start accidental fires and could be burned while trying to put out small fires.
Many people can quickly assess a fire’s level of danger through sight; however, the visually impaired must learn to rely on their other senses which can often be overloaded during a fire. The best way the visually impaired can protect themselves is by taking every precaution available to them.
The first essential aspect of fire safety is prevention. FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration offer tips for fire prevention for the visually impaired:
- Don’t wear loose-fitting clothing around an open flame.
- Don’t leave hot pans unattended.
- Always set a timer when cooking food in the oven.
- Don’t overload electrical outlets.
- Never use the oven to heat your home.
- Properly maintain chimneys and space heaters.5
Other valuable tips include:
- Make sure pot handles are facing in (away from the front of the stove) so that they can’t be knocked off or pulled down.6
- If a gas stove or oxygen tank is nearby, don’t smoke.7
- Keep cooking surfaces clean and free of grease buildup.8
Many of the techniques people use to prepare for a fire work for the visually impaired as well. For example, the visually impaired should have an escape plan in place and should practice the route, being sure to stay low to the ground. The visually impaired should have smoke alarms and regularly check them.
However, because of their unique challenges, there are some additional steps that should be taken. For example, if a visually impaired person has a service animal, they should be sure to practice their escape plan with the animal. Also, when possible, the visually impaired should live on a ground floor and near an exit.9
It’s also important for the visually impaired to know that special smoke alarms exist for their needs. Normal high decibel alarms can overload a visually impaired person’s senses, causing them to become disoriented during a fire. There are smoke alarms available that pause between alarm cycles so the visually impaired can hear instructions or listen for orders from a firefighter.10
During a fire, the visually impaired should follow their escape plan, crawling to stay low and checking doors with the back of their hand for heat before opening them (If a door is hot, use your second exit).11 Once the visually impaired person is out, they should stay out and call 911 if no one has done so.
Immediately following a fire, a visually impaired person should let friends and family know they are okay and secure their service animal if they have one.12
If a person has to move homes after a fire, they should immediately create a new escape plan for the new residence. Check all smoke alarms and install new alarms if needed. Begin practicing their escape plan regularly.
For visually impaired children, preparation and practice are essential. The most important lesson parents can teach children is to “get low and go.” Practicing “get low and go” will teach them the importance of getting low to the ground as quickly as possible and to stay low as they make their way to an exit.13
SafeKidsUSA offers a four-step plan to help parents of visually impaired children prepare for a fire:
Step One: Create an escape plan with at least 2 ways out of each room.
Step Two: Establish a meeting place outside the house.
Step Three: Call 911 once you’re out of the house.
Step Four: Practice the plan.14
Parents should also be sure to do their part by regularly checking smoke alarms. It’s also a good idea to familiarize children with the sounds smoke alarms make. Be sure to test them at night to make sure the child will wake up to the sound of the smoke alarm.
Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing
The deaf and hard-of-hearing are at special risk during a fire because many can’t hear traditional smoke alarms or remove hearing aids or cochlear implants while they sleep (making hearing alarms impossible).15
When it comes to preventing fire, the deaf and hard-of-hearing can follow many of the same prevention steps. Many precautions should be taken, but here are just a few:
- Check your home’s electrical system.
- Check appliances.
- Be careful with space heaters.
- Properly store flammable liquids.
- Don’t leave oven or stove unattended when cooking.
- Use candles safely.16
The deaf and hard-of-hearing should follow the same fire preparedness steps, e.g. have an escape plan, practice it regularly, know how to test doors and so on. But the deaf and hard-of-hearing must go through with a few extra steps. The first and most essential step is installing a specially designed smoke alarm.
The early notification provided by a properly working smoke alarm is a key factor in surviving a fire. The deaf and hard-of-hearing can buy alarms with flashing strobe lights and vibrating pillow pads and bed shakers do exist. They should have flashing smoke alarms installed so the light can be seen from anywhere in the house. Once these special alarms are in place, test them monthly and change the batteries at least once a year.17
The deaf and hard-of-hearing should also keep TTY/TDD within arm’s reach of their bed along with their hearing aids.18 They should make sure their fire department knows of their special needs and should reach out to the fire department for help in getting prepared. 19
The most important steps a deaf or hard-of-hearing person can take following a fire is to go through all preparedness safety precautions. Install new flashing smoke alarms with vibrating pads for the new home or if they don't havet to move, they should replace any alarms that might have been damaged in the fire.
If a TTY/TDD device was damaged purchase a new one. Because the latest communication technologies offer texting and other convenient ways for the deaf and hard-of-hearing to communicate with others (both in and outside the hearing community), there is a tendency in the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities to move away from TTY/TDD devices. Because these devices can be directly connected to the 911 service in a local area, automatically providing a deaf or hard-of-hearing person’s location and phone number directly to the service (unlike mobile phones which will require that they provide an address), it's important that they keep one in their home. If a TTY/TDD device was damaged in the fire, please replace it.20
Parents of children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing should make sure that flashing/vibrating smoke alarms are installed in the home. Test these alarms regularly. Make sure your child will wake up if these alarms go off while they’re sleeping.
Follow all other safety precautions that are recommended for hearing children—have an escape plan and practice it regularly, teach your child to “get low and go,” etc.
Teach them what firefighters look like so they will not be afraid of them if firefighters are trying to rescue them from the home during a fire. At the same time, make sure the local fire department knows that a child in the home is deaf or hard-of-hearing so that they can adjust their rescue efforts accordingly.
Those with physical disabilities are one of the highest risk groups of dying in a fire.21 There are multiple reasons for this high risk: 1) homes that aren’t specially designed for the physically disabled may present obstacles and other challenges making it difficult for them to escape and 2) their disabilities may make it difficult for them to safely and quickly exit a burning structure.22
It’s important for people with physical disabilities to first do everything they can to prevent fires. These steps include following all prevention steps available to those without physical disabilities while taking special precautions in other areas. For example, have your home inspected for possible fire hazards.23 The physically disabled should also:
- Be careful when smoking in the home.
- Avoid wearing loose clothing while cooking.
- Make sure appliances are working properly.
- Unplug space heaters when they aren’t being used.24
Be careful when using any open flame, such as a candle in the home, and make sure fireplaces are properly maintained.
There are several steps the physically disabled can take to ensure their safety during a fire. According to the National Park Service, those who are physically disabled should:
- Live (or have a bedroom) on the ground floor, as close to an exit as possible.
- Make sure walkers and wheelchairs fit through all exits.
- If necessary, have a ramp available for emergency exits.
- Make sure they’re able to open locked or barred doors, windows and other exits.
- Inform local emergency services of your special needs and ask your local dispatch to keep your special needs status on file.25
Of course, the physically disabled should also follow all other essential preparedness steps such as having and regularly practicing an escape plan, regularly testing and changing the batteries of all smoke alarms, and so on.
It’s important to note that some workplaces may exempt physically disabled employees from having to participate in fire escape drills. The physically disabled should insist they participate in these drills. They should make sure their coworkers know how to assist them during a fire and there is a safe and efficient way for them to exit the building.26 They should also report any obstacles that might impede their safe escape. 27
Immediately following a fire, if the physically disabled person uses a wheelchair or walker, they should make sure it hasn’t been damaged.
Other steps of recovery should include re-equipping the residence or equipping a new residence with smoke alarms, creating a new escape plan, checking to make sure they are able to get through all exits, and so on.
If a child is physically disabled make sure he/she has a fire escape plan for all frequently visited locations—home, school, church, friends’ homes, etc. 28 Make sure there are designated adults (more than one) who will be able to help the child exit the building. 29
Practice stop, drop and roll with the child. If the child is wheelchair bound or uses a walker or crutches, make sure he/she can safely lock the device, slide to the ground and roll back and forth to smother flames, in case his/her hair or clothing catches on fire. 30
Like people with physical disabilities, people with cognitive impairments are at a high risk of death or injury during a fire. Similarly, the best way for them to protect themselves or for their caregivers to protect them is through prevention.
Many home fires start in the kitchen. Depending on the severity of a person’s cognitive impairment, it may be best to avoid cooking.31 If a person with cognitive impairments is active in the kitchen it’s important that certain safety precautions are always followed (and that, if necessary, a caregiver monitors them):
- Make sure stove burners and the oven are always properly turned off.
- Make sure stove burners are set to the proper cooking level.
- Properly store flammable items, such as paper towels and kitchen towels, and make sure they are kept away from cooking surfaces.
- Avoid wearing loose clothing while cooking.
- Turn pot handles away from the front of the stove.
- Don’t place inappropriate items (e.g. metal) in the microwave.
- Use a checklist to make sure everything is turned off aftercooking.32
And of course, there are other precautions that should be followed. For example, keep candles and other open flames out of the home, use a checklist when ironing, and keep flammable materials like propane and gas outside the home. 33
Depending on a person’s level of cognitive impairment, it may be necessary to take additional steps to prepare them for what to do during a fire. It is still important to follow basic fire preparation steps such as installing and regularly checking smoke alarms, having and practicing an escape plan, and practicing getting and staying low during a fire but additional steps may be required.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, caregivers should:
- Make sure the person with a cognitive impairment understands what the smoke alarm sound/signal means and teach them what to do when they hear it. If the person cannot understand what the alarm means, a plan for alerting/helping them escape during a fire needs to be part of the family’s evacuation plan.
- Assess whether the person will be able to follow the escape plan and find their way out of the home. Determine ahead of time whether the person will know how to use the exits.
- Decide ahead of time who will give the person assistance (if needed). It is best to designate at least two people.
- Mark escape routes and/or post signs that the person has indicated they understand.34
- Make sure local emergency responders are aware that someone with special needs lives in the home.
If you’re a caregiver to someone with cognitive impairments talk with them about what happened and comfort them if needed. If the person must move help them get acquainted with their new space. Make sure it has working smoke alarms and work with the person to create a new escape plan and to start practicing it.
If the person is able to stay in the home after the fire, help them organize any repairs that are needed. Make sure the smoke alarms are in working order. Make sure there isn’t any debris or other damage that might hinder their movements or make them uncomfortable.
It is important for parents and other caregivers to introduce children with cognitive impairments to the basics of fire safety.
SafeKids USA provides a seven-step plan for parents of children with cognitive disabilities:
Step 1: Make an escape plan with at least two ways out of each room.
Step 2: Use the child’s strengths and interests when explaining different concepts.
Step 3: If needed, use visuals to help them understand.
Step 4: Use exit signs to help your child remember how to get out.
Step 5: Designate a meeting place outside the home.
Step 6: Call 911 after you’re out of the house.
Step 7: Frequently practice the plan.35
SafeKids also notes that children with cognitive impairments may not respond to or may be frightened by traditional alarms. As such, parents may want to purchase smoke alarms that broadcast their voice and a message telling the child what they should do. 36
Teach the child the “get low and go” concept and practice it and check doors whenever practicing the escape plan.
6 – 8) U.S. Fire Administration
11 – 12) Oklahoma State Department of Health
14) Safe Kids USA
28 – 30) Montgomery County, Maryland
31 – 33) Shepherd Center
35 – 36) Safe Kids USA