Monday, January 4, 2016

Let's Talk About Safety Issues and Disability

{Photo is of our apartment stairs. Photo credit to my sis: January, 2016}

The other day, I watched The Right to be Rescued, a brief documentary released on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which detailed the lack of any kind of plan when it came to rescuing disabled citizens.  They were left behind, abandoned, while the able bodied evacuated.  Many died.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time I've heard about disabled people being overlooked with regard to emergencies.  Talking to a friend on the phone around the anniversary of September 11th one year, she shared a story she heard about one disabled woman, who insisted coworkers get to safety, voluntarily staying behind because it didn't make sense for more people to perish than necessary.  More recently in September, 2015, Barbara McWiliams died in a California wildfire when firefighters were apparently "too busy" with general evacuations to save her.

It was December, 2009 when the fire alarm went off in our building in the middle of the night.  Ripped from sleep, we got up and made our way to the apartment door which we felt to be sure it wasn't hot.  We didn't smell smoke, so we ventured to open the door.  In the hall, another smell greeted us.  Not thick smoke, but the scent of something burning, maybe?

Neighbors were also on high alert, and those who were able in our accessible building were in the hall, looking to each other, wondering what to do.  When the fire alarms go off, the elevator isn't to be used.  At the time, my sister and I lived on the third floor of our building.

Thinking quickly, Tara and I decided to err on the side of caution and make our way down the stairs.  Returning to our apartment, I swapped out my purple chair for my crutches and we began making our way down the three flights of stairs.  Having recently been injured, and not having grabbed shoes, plus with the stress of the situation impacting my spasticity, it was slow going.  Still, I was determined.  When faced with the choice to wait on the third floor with piercing noise and a potential threat, I chose to act.

The long-ago lectures on fire safety echoed in my head.  Always, the first goal is to get out.  A wait and see attitude is just not wise.  So, even though I was the most anxious at the thought of my wheelchair burning, I also knew we had to get out.

We were still on the stairs, making our way down, when the building's caretaker appeared.  "What are you doing?" she asked, sounding stern.

"Getting out," we told her, dumbfounded.

"You're supposed to stay in your apartment when the fire alarm goes off!  You know better than that!"

Tara and I didn't have time to exchange glances, and we weren't about to go back upstairs without the all clear so we continued down.  We were both thinking the same thing:  the caretaker's advice sounded awful and didn't make any sense!  The presence of fireproof doors and sprinklers wouldn't do any good if smoke got to us first.

We made it to the first floor and with the fire department present and trying to disable the alarm, we were assured there was no danger.  Still we waited for the alarm to stop blaring before we returned upstairs.

Writing about these issues is difficult for me as it brings up a lot of unsafe feelings due to the fact that there really are no easy answers.  There are plenty of residents in our building who don't have the mobility to get down to the first floor and outside without help.  I've often thought about what would be done in the event of a real fire here.  24 apartments and only a handful of us can independently (albeit slowly) evacuate if necessary.

A friend shared in October about her daughter's school field trip to the fire station.  They had a real fire drill there for the elementary age kids with fake smoke.  Her daughter has CP and found climbing out a window significantly more challenging.  How do we help our kids, she wondered?  How do we help ourselves, I wonder, too.

I don't have all the answers, but I will share what little I have come up with for moments when evacuation is necessary:

1)  Don't be afraid to think creatively.  Living with a disability often means creative thinking.  So, if you are disabled, think about the safest, quickest way out of your residence before an emergency occurs.  In the event of a fire, stay low to the floor, and block the crack under your door with clothes or blankets to avoid too much smoke inhalation.  If you live in an area where flooding is a possibility, keep a life jacket on hand that is easy to put on, so you can stay afloat, should you need to.  Also, if you live in an apartment, do everything you can to ensure a first-floor dwelling.

2)  Be proactive.  The most important thing, I think, is for us to feel empowered in these circumstances that can leave us feeling so helpless.  I firmly believe that doing something is always better than waiting for a fire or flood or impending collapse to happen.  Even if what you are doing seems small, remind yourself that in this way you are fighting for your life.  Know that you are worth saving.

3)  Call for help.  Always have a phone close by and don't be afraid to use it to call for assistance.  Also, know where you are geographically, so you can describe it to the operator.  All these details will help rescuers find you quicker.

4)  If possible, have backup mobility aids stored somewhere else.  My biggest fear in an event where my residence is threatened either by fire or flood, is that I'll not be able to evacuate.  Also, though, that if I do, I'll be separated from my wheelchair and/or crutches.  If you or your loved one has spare mobility aids (old ones that you/they don't use) store them somewhere other than where you live, but somewhere you or a loved one could potentially access if needed.

Let's have a conversation about this.  What tips do you have for those of us who are disabled and could face fire, flood, or another disaster and are in need of a plan and/or resources?


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  1. Thank you for linking to The Right to be Rescued, Tonia! - @rootedinrights

  2. You're welcome! I love your content!

  3. Tonia I loved this article. Can I link it to my blog? I have been thinking a ton about this subject too because we had a fire alarm at my 5th graders school and she is on the second floor. There was no plan to get her out, although everyone assumed there was. Her aide ended up picking her 110 pound body up and carrying her down a flight of stairs instead of leaving her there. I called the fire dept myself to get ideas of keeping her safe in school and to insure they knew about her being in a chair at home
    Good work bringing it to light

    1. Hi Patty,
      You can absolutely link this at your blog. I would love that. (I checked it out, because I was curious, and was so pleasantly surprised to see how respectful of your daughter's privacy and dignity you are.)

      I hope you won't mind me getting a little bossy but there absolutely NEEDS to be an evacuation plan for your daughter. Bring this up at her IEP meetings (or speak to someone who can address this ASAP.) Don't be afraid to make some noise. Send emails, confront administration, do whatever you have to do. Your daughter's safety is non-negotiable and it is nothing short of negligent and discriminatory for them not to have a plan to get her out. Good idea, too, calling the fire department to get ideas, and I would hope any professional educator would do the same as her aide and help her evacuate.

      I hope you'll stay in touch. (Tonia Says is also on Facebook and I find it a lot easier to interact there. So feel free to 'like' it there.) Thanks so much for your comment!