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Make your home safe for people with disabilities

By Richard C. Campos | 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron | Sept. 6, 2017


Disabilities come in all forms, mental and physical. For this reason, home safety is something that should be highly considered.

“People of all abilities need to prepare for any unplanned events that could occur, even in the safety and comfort of their home and community,” said Tom Scott, United Spinal Association. “Home safety is even more important for people with disabilities and mobility impairments.”

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, or NFPA, there are millions of Americans that live with physical and mental disabilities.  It’s important for the disabled and caregivers to know the actions they can take to stay safe from fire.

Each year, there are approximately 700 home fires involving people with physical disabilities and approximately 1,700 home fires involving people with mental disabilities. Kitchens and cooking areas are the primary areas where these fires start.

Having physical or mental disabilities does not mean a person is unable to take the important steps to keep safe from fire. Learn to build your fire prevention plans around abilities.

Smoke alarms

Smoke alarms with a vibrating pad or flashing light are available for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Smoke alarms with a strobe light outside the home to catch the attention of neighbors and emergency call systems for summoning help are also available.

Ask the manager of your building, or a friend or relative, to install at least one smoke alarm on each level of your home.

Test smoke alarm batteries every month and change them at least once a year. If you can't reach the test button on your smoke alarm, ask someone to test it for you.

Location, location, location

Although you have the legal right to live where you choose, you'll be safest on the ground floor if you live in an apartment building. If you live in a multistory home, arrange to sleep on the first floor. Being on the ground floor and near an exit will make your escape easier.

Plan your escape around your capabilities. Know at least two exits from every room.

If you use a walker or wheelchair, check all exits to be sure you can get through the doorways. Doorways must be at least 32 inches wide. Make any necessary changes, such as installing exit ramps and widening doorways, to make an emergency escape easier.

Make sure stairway handrails are installed the correct way. Handrails should extend beyond the top and bottom so people have support when they get on and off the last step.

Make sure there is good staircase lighting. This means that there is no glare or shadows.

Keep stairways clear of extra objects. Outside should be kept clear of debris and leaves. Make sure there are no cracks, loose bricks or stones on outside steps.

If you build a staircase, make sure the tread (width of step) and riser (height of step) are the correct size. Risers should not be more than 7 inches. Treads should be wide enough so that the feet do not extend beyond the edges of steps.

Do not throw rugs at the bottom of staircases as they may cause people to trip and fall. If you must use throw rugs, secure them with carpet tape or skid-resistant backing.

Inside, outside ramps

Inside and outside ramps should have slope no greater that 1 inch of height for each 12 inches of length. Ramps bigger than this may cause a problem for people in wheelchairs or those with limited mobility. As with stairways, ramps should have handrails and be free of extra objects.

The ramp surface should be nonslip. For wooden ramps, this can be done with nonskid deck paint or adhesive strips. On concrete ramps, a broom finish (side-to-side across the slope) can help.

The right fit

As mentioned earlier, kitchens and cooking areas are the primary areas where these fires start. To make sure a person can escape from a home fire, especially if the individual is in a wheelchair, measure the wheelchair from front to back, plus footrest, and knowing the turning radius of a wheelchair will assist the person to escape a fire in the home.

There should be enough knee space under the counters for wheelchairs users and those who need to sit while working. Knee space should be about 30 inches wide, 27 inches high and 19 inches deep. Ensure this space gives you enough height and depth for knee and toe clearance.

Add rolling storage carts if you lose storage space due to accessibility needs. The individual in the wheelchair can push away the storage cart to escape the fire.

Have nonskid floors surfaces.

Place a kitchen-grade fire extinguisher where it’s easy to reach.

Speak to your family members, building manager or neighbors about your fire safety plan and practice it with them.

Contact your local fire department's nonemergency line and explain your needs. They can suggest escape plan ideas and may perform a home fire safety inspection if you ask.

Ask emergency providers to keep your needs information on file. Keep a phone near your bed and be ready to call 911 or your local emergency number if a fire occurs.

For more information about home safety for people with disabilities, visit the National Fire Prevention Association at http://www.nfpa.org/education, http://www.amputee-coalition.org, http://www.UnitedSpinal.org or contact the fire prevention offices at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston at 210-221-2727, JBSA-Lackland at 210-671-2921 or JBSA-Randolph at 210-652-6915.