Fire Safety for Elders with Special Health Needs

Decreased mobility, sight, hearing or cognitive capabilities may limit a person's ability to take the quick action necessary to escape during a fire emergency. People over the age of 65 are twice as likely to suffer injuries or lose their lives in fires compared to the population-at-large, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

If your elderly loved one has Alzheimer's or dementia, problems with mobility, or is vision or hearing impaired, there are certain precautions that need to be taken in the event of a house fire. These precautions go above and beyond the traditional fire safety guidelines for all families. (LINK)

Here are some fire safety tips for elderly people with special needs, provided by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA):

Mobility impairments

If your elderly loved one uses a cane, walker or wheelchair – or is in a cast due to an injury – traditional escape routes may no longer be viable. One-quarter of victims with physical disabilities were unable to act to save themselves during a fire emergency, according to the U.S Fire Administration.

  • Check all exits to make sure wheelchairs or walkers can get through the doorways. Make any necessary accommodations (such as installation of exit ramps) to facilitate an emergency escape.
  • Install flooring material that accommodates artificial limbs or canes.
  • Keep a phone by the bed for emergency calls in case the person becomes trapped and is unable to escape. Put emergency numbers in the speed dial directory of the phone.
  • People confined to a wheelchair may want to have a small "personal use" fire extinguisher mounted in an accessible place on the wheelchair, and become familiar with its use.
  • When escape is not an option due to impaired mobility, fire protection devices such as sprinkler systems, fire-safe compartment walls, and flame-resistant blankets can be used. The key is to have the room fireproofed before an emergency happens.

Blind/visually impaired

The most important thing a blind or visually impaired person can do to improve his or her chances of surviving a fire is to be prepared ahead of time.

  • Plan and practice two escape routes from each room in the home. By practicing an escape plan, a blind or visually impaired person can escape to safety, without losing time searching and feeling for an exit. Committing these actions to memory will serve as an instinctual map to safety.
  • A blind or visually impaired person will not see the fire, but must rely on other senses – the smell of smoke or the sense of heat emanating from the fire to know where the danger is. Test doors before opening them. Use the back of the 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 the second exit route.
  • A person may be forced to crawl along the floor to avoid smoke. It can be very disorienting to crawl when you are used to walking – especially for those who count steps to locate doors and hallways. Place tactile markers along the baseboard of exit routes to help a visually impaired person feel their way to safety.

Hearing impaired

Conventional smoke alarms that sound during a fire aren't effective for someone who is hard of hearing.

  • Many assistive devices are specially designed to alert hearing impaired people of an emergency. These include smoke alarms and appliances that use strobe lights and vibration equipment. Vibrating beds and pillows that are wired to a smoke alarm have been developed to awaken people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Smoke alarms with a strobe light outside the house can catch the attention of neighbors or others who might pass by.
  • Find out if the 911 or other emergency center is equipped to accept cell phone text messages or text telephone (TTY/TDD) calls.

Alzheimer's or dementia

If your relative has Alzheimer's or dementia, know that even cognitively impaired people oftentimes have an innate understanding that something is wrong during an emergency, and may be more clear-headed than you would imagine.

  • Remain calm during an emergency. Explain what is happening clearly and simply, but don't expect them to remember specific details. Validate their concerns, but provide clear direction without condescending or losing patience.
  • Provide a picture book of emergency procedures. A cognitively impaired person may be able to follow visual instructions more easily. Contact your local fire department or the National Fire Protection agency.
  • Practice escape routes. Cognition tends to improve and worsen at various times for people with Alzheimer's or dementia. If escape is practiced continually, instinct may take over and guide the elder to safety.
  • The person should sleep in a room that has easy access to the outdoors in case the home needs to be evacuated. A ground floor bedroom is best.
  • If your parent is in the early stages of dementia and lives alone, alert the fire department ahead of time to their special needs.

Regardless of their disability, all elderly people should live in a home with working smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. A working smoke alarm can reduce the risk of dying in a fire by as much as 60 percent, FEMA says.

Practicing escape plans is also vital for all elders. Knowing their escape plan is one of the most important steps elders can take to save their life in a fire. Plan the escape around your loved one's capabilities. Know at least two exits from every room. Make sure your loved one can unlock all doors and windows.

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