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Make an Emergency Fire Plan

If someone yells "Fire!" people generally listen! They get ready to either (a) panic or (b) act quickly and decisively. One thing they don't do is grab a brochure like this or a back issue of a magazine to review fire safety recommendations! That's why right now is a perfect time to read this and think about what you could do, should the worst ever happen.

For everyone, but especially for people with disabilities who are living on their own, fire is on the short list of safety issues to worry about. The reality is: if you have a mobility impairment, you are going to be at a very distinct disadvantage should there ever be a fire. This disadvantage is multiplied if you are alone and in bed at the time. What we'll do here is talk about how you might lessen that disadvantage. We'll present some basic things - and some farfetched ones - to get you thinking about a fire plan for yourself.

For Starters
Basic: Don't smoke in bed; this is a no-brainer. Keep tabs on electrical safety by checking your home regularly. Are outlets overloaded? Are you driving, day after day, over electrical cords buried under carpets? Perhaps most important, get smoke alarms. They do work! Have several throughout your house - and one in your bedroom for sure. Check and replace their batteries on a regular basis. Better yet, have a hard wired (inter-connected) smoke alarm system installed in your home. That way if one alarm goes off, they all go off and you'll hear the warning no matter where you are or where the fire is. Fire fighters also recommend that if you have an alarm in your bedroom, sleep with your bedroom doors closed. Together, closed doors and smoke alarms can buy you crucial time until the fire department arrives.

Make a Plan
Next, you need to develop your fire evacuation plan. It's crucial that you identify - and practice using - two different routes to get out of your house. You probably already have one - and, it's probably already accessible - so we'll focus on the second. It does not need to be perfect. If it's a back door or a side door, you need to be able to open it and then get yourself through it, outside, and away from the house. That could mean rolling down a very steep ramp. It could mean holding onto a handrail, leaning forward, and bouncing yourself, in your chair, backwards down several steps. It could mean crawling or dragging yourself down the stairs to the grass in your backyard. The point: you've got to have a plan - and, you've got to practice it.

If you haven't got a second useable doorway, maybe you need to look at your first floor windows. Is there a low one, or one that could be modified so you can open it easily yourself? Could you wheel up next to it and, literally, pitch yourself out, onto a grassy or sandy area that you've created below? Farfetched? Yes. Dangerous? Most likely. Better than being trapped in a burning house? You bet.

What If You're in Bed?
Now let's think of a more tricky proposition: you're in bed when all this happens. What do you do? First, always have your chair positioned at your bedside. Even if you can't transfer yourself, your chair needs to be there, ready for anyone who might arrive to assist you. You need to have a phone or call system you can reach and use at your bedside. You might want to put 911 on your speed dial. Also consider calling your local fire department now to see if they have or recommend a symbol to keep in your window that tells them which room is yours. If they do, use it. Otherwise, should an emergency ever arise, you'll need be sure to tell the 911 dispatcher that you have a disability and where your bedroom is located.

Next, if you can sit up and get out of bed and into your chair, do it. If the fire is not in your bedroom, but you're still not able to get out past it, remember to keep your bedroom door closed. If you've got a source of water nearby, and you're able, wet two towels. Stuff one along the crack at the bottom of your door to keep smoke out. Keep the other one with you. If it gets smoky, you can wave it around to dissipate the smoke, or wrap it around your head and face to breathe through.

Open your bedroom window. Hang a towel, jacket, shirt or something out of it to make it clear you're there. Wait. If necessary, dive, fall, or throw yourself out of your chair onto the floor. Since smoke rises, it's the floor that will be smokeless the longest. However, if you do go onto the floor, do it in an open area in the center of the room where you will be readily visible to someone entering the room. Don't wedge yourself in between your bed and chair, next to a dresser, etc. (Note: these suggestions for what to do while inside your bedroom are also good if you happen to be in a motel, dormitory, or office building. These buildings are usually built with special fire doors and sprinkler systems, making all of these strategies especially useful while you wait for help to arrive.)

If you can't get into your chair, all this is moot. Can you still somehow wet a towel? Unappetizing as it sounds, don't overlook an obvious water source very nearby - your night-bag. Better than burning or inhaling smoke? You bet. You might also consider using sheets, blankets, comforters, and clothes that are as burn resistant as possible. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/556.html) says that polyesters, nylon, wool, and silk are best - they are slower to ignite, and they tend to self-extinguish. These fabrics are safest when they're tightly woven and not "fuzzy." Cottons, cotton/poly blends, rayon, and acrylics, on the other hand, ignite and burn more readily.

Checklist
Let's review things you need to think about, plan for, and practice now to be prepared:

  1. Install smoke alarms. Hardwired ones are best.
  2. Practice using your phone or call systems - when you're up, and when you're in bed.
  3. Practice opening windows: your bedroom window, as well as any first floor windows that may be part of your alternate escape route.
  4. If there is any way you can master getting from your bed to you chair, do it.
  5. Practice safely "falling" from your bed to the floor, as well as getting from your wheelchair to the floor. There are right and wrong ways to do this - work with a therapist. Put pads or mattresses on the floor first.
  6. If you've got the strength, learn "combat crawling" - pulling yourself forward with your arms and elbows, while on your stomach. Practice rolling, too. Again, be sure to pad the floor. Save the part where you practice actually crawling down the stairs or a ramp for a "real" emergency.
  7. If you've got a short staircase with handrails as one of your exits, and if your arm strength is fairly good, practice backing yourself down the stairs in your wheelchair. Keep your hands on the rails, lean way forward, give a little push, and gravity should do the rest. It's noisy, it's scary, and it's jarring. How successful and safely you can do it depends on numerous things beyond your control: the design of your stairs, the length of your footrests, the type of handrails you have, etc. So, be sure to practice this only with a spotter behind you. Make sure he or she is holding on to the railings himself and is ready to stop the chair if need be. Save the solo flight for when you really need it.
  8. Once you've mastered all the pieces, practice going through your entireevacuation plan - using at least two different routes.

Now that we've gotten you whipped into a panic, relax. Many of the strategies described here are very dangerous; some or many won't work for you - either because of how your house is designed, because of the level of your spinal cord injury, or because you're never alone. However, what we've described should get you thinking. Review all we've described, and all of your own options. Make a plan that fits your situation. Share this plan with others close to you, so they know what to do in an emergency - and so they know what they can expect you to do. Finally, and most important, practice your plan. Practice those things that you can do safely and without injury; use a spotter when necessary. But, if you're likely to get hurt in your "fire drill," don't take the chance; just plan those things out in your mind instead.

And remember: Fire is a big risk, but it's also a pretty unlikely risk. You know how it goes: the more prepared you are, the less likely that it will ever happen!

This brochure originally appeared in Paraplegia News (April 2001). It is reprinted here with the permission of PVA Publications. Finally, we would like to thank the Englewood, Colorado Fire Division for reviewing and providing advice for this article.

This is part of a library of educational brochures developed by Craig Hospital with a federal grant titled, "Marketing Health Promotion, Wellness, and Risk Information for Spinal Cord Injury Survivors in the Community. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the funding agency, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the US Department of Education.

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