Fire Safety Tips for People with Disabilities

An accessible fire extinguisher is still on the drawing board, but here are a few other ways to stay safe

A pin that's hard to pull out is one of the reasons standard fire extinguishers may be unusable by many with disabilities.
Article Highlights:
  • In a fire emergency, people with muscle weakness may not be able to operate a standard fire extinguisher. An accessible extinguisher was being developed in the late 1990s, but stalled when more testing was needed.
  • To fight a kitchen fire, smother the flames. A damp cotton towel or a box of baking soda can be effective fire-fighting tools.
  • Free assistance may be available for those needing working smoke detectors.
  • Don’t accept unsafe living and working conditions — speak up, urges Leslie Little of H.E.L.P.U., a disability safety organization. Little is still hoping to bring an accessible fire extinguisher to market.
by Christina Medvescek on January 1, 2012 - 2:36pm

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 1

In June 2011, Vicki Pollyea of Tampa, Fla., heard a loud explosion on her bedroom porch. Pollyea, who has type 1A Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) and walks with assistance, spotted a small fire through her porch door.

She describes what happened next: "I grabbed our fire extinguisher (which my husband recently had recharged). I was trying to pull the pin out of the extinguisher as I was asking my sister, who also has CMT, to call 911, and for my niece to leash our dog and stand out front to direct the fire fighters to where the fire was.

"When we got outside, however, neither my sister nor I could pull the pin out of the fire extinguisher. I even tried biting it to pull it out. Thankfully there was an outdoor water faucet on which my husband had installed a lever handle, as I no longer can turn standard faucet taps. Not only did we have a new water faucet, but a new garden hose with a new adjustable spray nozzle that I could squeeze and turn to 'jet' force.

"My sister and I stood there spraying the fire and supporting each other as neither one of us had our canes or walkers … It was the longest 8 minutes in my life. By the time the two fire trucks arrived we had mostly extinguished the fire. The fire fighters carefully checked that the fire had not spread through our crawl space or into the attic."

The explosion turned out to have been caused by one of the "many flammable agents" the family had stored on the back porch (such as aerosol bug spray, a kerosene lantern with a container of fuel, and aerosol sunscreen).

Pollyea, who is an occupational therapist and leader of a CMT support group in the Tampa Bay area, says that “after our adrenaline calmed down,” she asked the fire fighters about the fire extinguisher problem. They had no suggestions, except to leave the pin partially pulled out — but they warned that this would likely cause premature discharge of the extinguisher.

"So, friends at MDA, that’s my story," says Pollyea. "There is a valuable lesson in this experience for the need for an easy-to-use fire extinguisher."

Still on the drawing board

In December 1999, Quest described the efforts of a Williamsburg, Va., woman to develop such an extinguisher.

Leslie Little's fire extinguisher
Leslie Little's adapted fire extinguisher prototype has a gauge with large print and a trigger that flips with minimal force.

Leslie Little, who has CMT, partnered with a Midwest manufacturer and surveyed 250 people with disabilities for design suggestions. Rather than having a pullout pin, the adapted extinguisher's trigger was designed to activate with a spring that could be engaged with minimal force.

Little insisted that the trigger be operable by the amount of force exerted by the tip of a pinky. Anything tighter and a person with weak or arthritic hands wouldn't be able to operate it, she told the engineers.

Other features included a large-print gauge with a non-glare covering (to help those with visual disabilities), and a total weight of less than 5 pounds. It could be used at any angle — "upside down, sideways, on your lap, propped between your legs," Little says.

So what happened to it?

"My organization conducted the first testing on the prototype and had requests for further adaptations," Little says, referring to a nonprofit organization she co-founded and operates, H.E.L.P.U. Fire Life Safety. H.E.L.P.U. teaches emergency response organizations about the needs of people with disabilities, and provides free online disability safety information.

"Then the terrorist events occurred on Sept. 11, and the extinguisher was placed on the back burner for future redesign and testing," Little reports. "I do not know nor have I heard anything about the fire extinguisher."

In lieu of an accessible fire extinguisher, what’s a person with muscle weakness to do?

Beware the kitchen

Two of every five reported home fires start in the kitchen or cooking area, and the leading cause is unattended cooking equipment, says the Red Cross.

The best thing to do when a fire is large or quickly spreading is to get out of the house and call the fire department. Better to lose your possessions than your life.

As a precaution, never leave cooking food unattended. Use a timer as a reminder that the stove or oven is on. Use common sense when cooking: Don’t wear dangling sleeves while cooking; keep flammable objects away from heat sources.

If a fire starts in the oven or microwave, turn off the heat and keep the door closed until the fire is completely out (open the door too soon and it may start back up again). Do not use the unit again until it is checked by a repairman.

Accessible fire extinguisher: A damp cotton towel

Cooking mishaps cause up to 90 percent of kitchen fires, and most of those are grease fires in pans on the stovetop.

Never pour water onto a grease fire; it can result in a fire ball.

Never attempt to move the burning pan to the sink — the risk of dropping it or burning yourself is extremely high.

Instead, turn off the heat under the pan and try to suffocate the flames.

An effective alternative fire extinguisher is a damp, thick, pure-cotton bath towel, which can be tossed over a kitchen fire without having to get too close to the flames.

The YouTube video "Kitchen Oil Fire" (watch below) gives both a demonstration of this technique and a dramatic warning about throwing water on a grease fire.

Another option is to toss large amounts of baking soda on the fire — at least a box, if not more. The bicarbonate in the soda releases carbon dioxide, which smothers the flames. Do not use flour, sugar or baking powder, as these will burn. (Baking soda also works on electrical fires.)

If neither a damp towel nor baking soda is available, and if the flames aren’t too high, put on an oven mitt and place a tight-fitting lid or a larger pan over the pan that’s on fire. Hold the lid in front of you as a shield when approaching the flames and try to slide it on as opposed to dropping it from above. Don’t lift the lid until the pan has cooled.

Accessible smoke detectors

Almost two-thirds of home fire deaths occur in residences with no smoke detectors — or no working smoke detectors.

No-ladder smoke alarm
Alarm Arm No-Ladder Smoke Alarm by SafetyWise

Install a smoke detector near the kitchen, on each level of the house, near sleeping areas, and inside and outside bedrooms if you sleep with doors closed. Replace all batteries at least once a year.

Often, the local fire department will help change the batteries in your smoke detectors if you're unable to do so. Another alternative is the Alarm Arm No-Ladder Smoke Alarm, which enables those in wheelchairs to install a smoke detector unit or change the battery in an existing unit without a ladder. The device installs without drilling via an extension pole. Powerful ceramic magnets hold the smoke detector unit on the ceiling and make it easy to change its batteries in seconds.

Designed and sold by SafetyWise, (708-478-4478), prices range from $17.96 to $44.96, depending on whether a smoke detector unit and extension pole are included.

Other safety considerations

Use space heaters according to manufacturer’s instructions and take care not to overload electrical circuits.

Keep halls, stairs and doorways illuminated and free of clutter that could hinder an escape during a fire emergency. Consider having those with mobility issues sleep on the ground floor of the house.

Wheelchair users should ensure there are two wheelchair-accessible exits from the home, in case one is blocked by fire.

Leslie Little recommends soaping the tracks of the first-floor windows so they slide easily. "Don’t use oil, use dishwashing liquid. Make it so the window can be opened with two or three fingers."

Accessible extinguisher still a possibility

Little still has the prototype fire extinguisher that was in development just prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

The accessible extinguisher "is not a loss by any stretch," Little said. "It's developed. When I received it by shipment and showed to [H.E.L.P.U.] board members, volunteers and the fire department, everybody was crying. They couldn't believe we had gotten it."

Leslie Little with her service dog, Buck, and her extinguisher
A 1999 photo featuring Leslie Little, her service dog Buck, and the accessible fire extinguisher prototype she helped develop.

The extinguisher "works perfectly for me because I have enough strength in my index and middle finger to lift the lever."

Unfortunately, others couldn’t lift the lever because the spring was too tight. "The spring has to be loosened, but to do that, it has to go back for UL safety testing. The first UL testing cost $75,000 — and that was 11 years ago — because there are high standards for a ‘fire life safety device.’ The money has to be up front. In the economy now, it may take some time."

Little encourages people to advocate for better emergency safety devices and procedures for people with disabilities. Recalling that she once was told, "disabled people don’t have fires," she urges others, "Don’t accept any answer that tells you about yourself. You tell them about yourself. You are the only one who knows you.

"Put your voice on paper in a letter to the editor, or talk to reporters and have them come over. Ask, 'how do I get out of here if there's a fire?' Reporters love those types of stories and you will get results – a change in policies, a one-way elevator that will take people to ground level in a fire — these are tax write-offs for businesses, apartments and condos."

Little welcomes inquiries about the prototype extinguisher. "It is still a viable program. It has not been cancelled by any stretch, but with the economy the way it is, it could be another year, six months — or tomorrow — when funding or a donation comes through. I'm not giving up on it. I never have."

Little can be contacted at information@helpusafety.org, or by writing 1409B North Mt. Vernon Avenue, Williamsburg, VA, 23185-7104.

Meanwhile, Vicki Pollyea says she is none the worse for her "little adventure" with the porch fire. But she adds, "It is so frightening to think that all of our fire extinguishers really can’t be used by me.

"Perhaps this article will generate some interest in making one that is more accessible."

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