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​Fire Safety for the Mobility Impaired

The mobility-impaired community is growing and it is a population segment with high fire risk. Factors that impact this group include limitations of typical home construction because many mobility impaired people chose to live outside institutions or care facilities. Their living status ranges from live-in caregivers to very independent living. Their various impairments may seriously hinder their ability to extinguish an incipient fire, to escape a fire and may lead to their confinement necessitating rescue by others. They are limited by time and physical means.

Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to fire safety but it does not address evacuation in public or private homes.

Fire risks for mobility-impaired persons include:

  • Fire experiences growth rapid -- fire can double in size every 30 seconds.
  • Smoke and heat will quickly overwhelm mobility impaired people and impair their ability to escape.
  • Limiting factors to escape.
  • People in general are ‘inexperienced’ in dealing with a fire situation.
  • Traditional escape routes may not be easily navigated by mobility impaired people. Windows may not be accessible, doors could be blocked; if not on the ground floor, elevators may not be available.
  • They may be living alone with no assistance.

Mobility Impared Fire Safety Factors

Before the fire, planning is very important to ensure your survival:

  • Consider limitations/capabilities of individuals and plan accordingly.
  • Provide extra smoke alarms to ensure earliest warning. A very important step you can take to save your life during a fire is to install smoke alarms that suit your needs. Working smoke alarms can make a vital difference in the event of a fire and may reduce the risk of dying in a fire by as much as 60 percent. A properly functioning alarm can alert you to the presence of deadly smoke while there is still time to escape. Place alarms next to each sleeping area and on every floor of your home. Keep smoke alarms clean by vacuuming or having them vacuumed regularly. Test batteries monthly, and replace them annually. Ask friends, family members, building managers, or someone from the fire department to install and test the batteries of a smoke alarm if it is hard to reach. If your smoke alarms are hardwired (connected to the electric circuitry of your residence), make sure they are also equipped with battery back-ups.
  • Identify the nearest emergency exit. Whether you are at home or elsewhere, you should always know the location of the nearest exit. This could save your life in an emergency.
  • Have a fire extinguisher and learn how to use it. If you are confined to a wheelchair, consider mounting (or having someone mount) a small “personal use” fire extinguisher in an accessible place on your wheelchair and become familiar with its use. Then, if you cannot “stop, drop, and roll” during a fire, you should "pull, aim, squeeze, and sweep."
  • If you live in an apartment building, try to get an apartment on the ground floor. If this is not possible, know where the exit stairwell is and plan to wait there for help if you cannot take the stairs in the event of a fire. If you live in a multistory house, try to sleep on the ground floor.
  • Make sure a phone (or TTY/TDD if you use one) is next to your bed, within arm’s reach. Keep emergency telephone numbers and hearing aids (if necessary) handy as well. And locate an audible alarm outside to notify neighbors of a problem.
  • Notify the fire department of special needs of occupants.
  • Plan several escape routes from all areas of the home and practice escape routes in dark. If possible, move bedroom to ground floor and always sleep with door closed.
  • Clear an unobstructed path to every exit: Walkways and doorways should accommodate any mobility impairment the individual may have. For example, doorways should accommodate a wheelchair’s width, and flooring material should accommodate artificial limbs, walkers, or canes. Guardrails and handrails should be 44 to 48 inches high and 34 to 38 inches apart.
  • Remove or secure loose rugs and carpeting and rearrange furniture so it doesn’t block an escape route.

Fire Safety Tips for the Mobility Impaired

During the fire:

  • Get out and stay out.
  • Test the doors Before opening them. Using the back of your hand, reach up high and touch the door, the doorknob, and the space between the door and the frame. If anything feels hot, keep the door shut and use your second exit. If everything feels cool, open the door slowly and exit as low to the ground as possible if smoke is present.
  • Crawl low and keep under the smoke, if you are physically able. Use an auto mechanics creeper to propel an individual across the floor.
  • Try to cover your mouth and nose to avoid breathing toxic fumes, and make your way to safety as quickly as possible.
    •Leave your home as soon as possible. Do not try to gather personal possessions or attempt to extinguish a fire. Do not use the elevator. Once out, do not go back inside.

Know what to do if you are trapped:

  • Prepare your shelter space ahead of time -- have a phone nearby; make sure windows open; have a flashlight, whistle, or flashing light or bright colored material to wave from window to alert rescuers to your location.
  • Close all the doors between you and the fire. Fill cracks in doors and cover all vents with a damp cloth to keep smoke out. If possible, call the fire department and tell them where you are located. Signal rescuers from a window with a light-colored cloth.
  • Call fire department (9-1-1). Be calm – act fast and do not panic. Give location of the home, where you are, and if known, where the fire is. Don’t hang up until instructed to do so by emergency dispatcher.
  • If escape is impossible, shelter in place may be necessary until rescue is possible by others.