The following commentary was written by Michael Wilson, state coordinator for the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board. The board is a member of the New Jersey Fire Sprinkler Coalition:
We have come a long way in listening to and taking care of our disabled population; however, we can and should be doing better. Whether it's construction that's not up to code or job discrimination, individuals with disabilities struggle in everyday life. The fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990 shows how long those with disabilities were not heard. Sadly, that trend has continued to this day with fire safety. A recent example of this occurred when a house fire broke out in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
Late in the afternoon on November 3, a fire broke out in a home on the 900 block of Larchmont Avenue. Luckily a bystander saw what was happening and bravely rushed in when he saw the fire. This bystander, an off-duty police officer, was able to save the lives of a mother and her child who were trapped on the roof. The grandmother of the child, who had mobility limitations, was unable to vacate the home and passed away in the fire. Sadly, this tragedy is not an isolated incident.
More than 43 million Americans have a disability. Disabilities can range from being sensory to mobile. Individuals with disabilities cannot vacate a house as quickly as others and need more time to do so. Smoke detectors and fire escape ladders are great resources, but they can be ineffective for someone who is hearing impaired or wheelchair-bound.
Fire sprinklers are an overlooked yet viable solution to protect those with disabilities in the event of a fire. There have been numerous cases of individuals with mobility issues who were in a room where a fire broke out whose lives were saved when the sprinkler head went off and contained the fire. Despite the effectiveness of fire sprinklers, many builders and homeowners do not consider installing them. In the recent Haverford fire, had there not been a brave bystander nearby, the whole family would have perished; had there been fire sprinklers in the home, this story would not have made headlines.
I commend the brave actions of the bystander who saved those who were trapped and offers its condolences to the surviving family members. Policy makers and developers should consider those with disabilities in their planning. If you have a loved one with disabilities in a care facility, make sure to check for smoke detectors and fire sprinklers. Ensure that your loved one knows what to do in case of a fire.
All fatal fires are preventable—it's just a matter of enacting change. It's time to include individuals with disabilities in the conversation on fire safety and make tragic fires like the one in Haverford a thing of the past.
Download these NFPA home safety tips for people with disabilities. When updating your local building codes, please promote the impact home fire sprinklers can play in protecting this population.