Fire Safety for Seniors and the Handicapped

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Residential fires continue to be the main source of U.S. fire deaths. Fires in residential properties account for 71% of all structure fires and 83% of all fire deaths. Casualties occur in all age groups, but there are millions of Americans against whom fire holds heavy odds. These are people with limited capabilities -- the very young, the elderly and the physically or mentally handicapped. Lacking the ability to cope effectively with fire accidents, these persons require protective watchfulness from their families, friends and associates. The fire death rate among these groups is three times that of the rest of the population.

There is an old saying in the fire protection field to the effect that fires have three causes: men, women and children. It takes the careless or unwise action of a human being, in most cases, to begin a destructive fire. In the home environment we live our daily lives amid flammable materials close to potential sources of ignition. Several categories of the fire problem are well known to all who work in the fire service and in fire safety education. These include:

  • Cigarettes - carelessly disposed smoking materials, often dropped next to seat cushions in sofas or stuffed easy chairs; smoking in bed; smoking while under the influence of alcohol, drugs or medication.
  • Portable heaters - placed near combustibles such as curtains, furniture, papers and magazines; left unattended while functioning.
  • Cooking stoves - clothing, hot pads and hand towel ignition, unattended cooking results in grease fires which produce burns.
  • Electricity - faulty light cords or extension cords; overloading circuits and cords by running several appliances on them; faulty appliances or misuse of appliances such as kitchen ranges for home heating; poor and inadequate maintenance of electrical equipment.
  • Solid-fueled Heating Appliances - improper installation and maintenance, including creosote buildup in chimneys and flues; combustibles too close and inadequate clearances.
  • Flammable Liquids - used for starting or "refreshing" dying fires; used as a cleaning solvent in the home; improper storage resulting in vapor leakage.

The threat of fire to the elderly and handicapped is often present in two scenarios. The first is the combination of simultaneously smoking a cigarette, sitting in a stuffed easy chair or sofa and being under the influence of medication, stress or fatigue. Hot ashes or the cigarette itself when dropped in the folds of overstuffed furniture will result in a fire in two to four hours, usually after occupants have gone to bed. The second scenario is clothing ignition, in particular while cooking. The hours between 7 A.M. and 10 A.M. are statistically documented as the time when most such disasters happen to the elderly. Loose fitting clothing, such as house coats and night wear, are easily ignited by stove heating units. The elderly are especially vulnerable because they may be living alone and experience limitations in general mobility. Several fire safety provisions are of great importance in meeting the needs of the elderly and handicapped. Special emphasis should be given to early warning smoke detection near sleeping areas, escape planning, including easy access to exits, placing telephones with emergency numbers near beds, close fitting clothing with short sleeves while cooking, and regular maintenance of heating appliances. Systems are now available which allow fire and medical emergency alarms to be transmitted directly to emergency dispatch centers monitored on a 24-hour basis by trained personnel.

The handicapped person requires the same fire safety information as any other individual or group. The difference for the handicapped is in their response to a fire, smoke or heat situation. The "correct" behavior will be the one that fire compensates for the specific handicap. For the deaf person it means finding a way of sensing a smoke detector's warning other than through sound and hearing. For the paraplegic it may mean learning an alternative to the stop, drop and roll procedure in case of clothing ignition. Smoke detectors are now available which can be equipped with strobe lights or bed shakers to alert thehearing impaired to fire situations. Speech and/or hearing impaired persons may communicate with emergency dispatch centers through special devices which transmit written messages by telephone. Handicapped persons will need to develop escape procedures which take into account the extent of their disability. For example, ramps may be constructed which allow wheelchairs to exit the home. In the instance of the elderly and handicapped, basic precautions and fire safety measures which apply to all individuals or groups must be observed. However, for these specific groups the need for prevention and pre-planning is crucial and its importance must be emphasized.

We must all "learn not to burn."

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