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Fire Safety for Students with Disabilities

Fire safety for people with disabilities is an area that is growing and getting more attention. However, there’s a shortage of information and resources that fire-safety educators can use to guide them in conducting education programs for this demographic.

Fortunately, a number of organizations are starting to step forward and provide resources in this area. The Michael H. Minger Foundation was awarded a DHS Fire Prevention and Safety Grant to develop a training program for fire-safety educators to use.

In 2009, the Minger Foundation, under an earlier DHS grant, published a study of schools to determine what was currently being done on campuses for students with disabilities; in the study, they found a significant gap. Various offices on campus, such as the Office of Disability Services or Environmental Health and Safety, each thought the other was responsible or that the fire department was teaching fire safety to students with disabilities.

The bottom line was that it apparently wasn’t being done by anyone or if it was, it was inadequate.

The same was true for response procedures. For example, a frequently mentioned solution was to maintain a list of students with disabilities in the fire-alarm panel in a residence hall. But in reality, what does this accomplish? It just tells the first responders where a student is supposed to be, not where they really are.

Educating the students themselves is a good answer to this problem, teaching them how to prevent a fire from occurring in the first place and what actions to take if one does break out. Since a number of these student live off-campus, either with their parents or on their own, education becomes even more critical because they’re beyond the reach of housing staff that may be able to provide education and assistance.

One of the first actions was to form an advisory team to help guide the development of the project. Experts in both fire safety and disabilities were brought together and crafted specific steps to answer the needs. Two major components were decided on: a series of fire-safety videos featuring students with disabilities talking about fire safety and an online guide for the fire-safety educator on how to effectively teach fire safety to students with disabilities.

Four videos were produced, each featuring a student with a disability, including vision, hearing, mobility and learning/developmental disorder. These videos are short, only about three minutes long, and are designed to appeal to the YouTube generation.

Given the short time available in each video, the focus was narrowed to four fire-safety topics: cooking, egress, sprinklers and smoke alarms. These were areas identified in an earlier survey of campus fire officials as having the most priority and yet lacking in adequate information.

A fifth video is a train-the-trainer production, where each of the students talks about how to best communicate fire-safety information to them and their peers. A fire captain whose son is autistic also talks about the importance of routinely and effectively providing fire-safety information to students with disabilities.

Accompanying these videos is an online guide that provides information to the fire-safety educator on teaching methods that work well with each demographic. This guide uses information from its expert advisory team as well as work developed under previous grants by Oklahoma State University, the University of Maryland, the U.S. Fire Administration, the National Fire Protection Association and other sources. The guide serves as a one-stop resource to guide the fire safety educator in working with people with disabilities.

As a part of this project, the Minger Foundation has also compiled an extensive listing of online resources, reports and studies.

Ed Comeau is a member of the IAFC Fire & Life Safety Section’s board of directors. He is the publisher of Campus Firewatch and on the executive committee of the Vision 20/20 project.

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