In Case of Emergency

An out-of-order elevator presents a minor inconvenience for most people, but it’s a major challenge for wheelchair users. Add in an emergency evacuation, and the situation can become life-threatening. 

By Amanda Laverman

While there are numerous resources and information available to plan for these situations, many wheelchair users and those who assist them are ill-prepared to navigate stairs in the case of an emergency or elevator outage.

“Situational awareness is the answer. Know if the building has ‘stair descent devices’ available and who will assist you to go down,” says Daniel Porth, human services coordinator for the Arizona Department of Emergency & Military Affairs (DEMA), Division of Emergency Management. “The most overlooked steps [when preparing for emergencies] include not taking personal responsibility for individual preparedness and not having situational awareness.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Stair descent devices include evacuation chairs, which are often located in the stairwells of multi-story schools, hospitals, government buildings, hotels and other buildings.
Unfortunately, these devices are often neglected until the evacuation situation presents itself, and this neglect can hinder a timely, efficient evacuation.
This is a problem Trevor De Jaray often encounters in his sales role with Garaventa Lift, a manufacturer of evacuation chairs and other emergency devices for wheelchair users.

“The biggest issue we have with evacuation chairs is that people leave them on the wall and do nothing with them,” says De Jaray. “Lo and behold, when there’s a real emergency or perceived emergency, people go to use the chair, and we have operators that are unfamiliar with the unit and users that are equally unfamiliar with the unit. This creates a really bad situation. The biggest issue I want to drive across to people is whenever they’re doing fire drills, I want them to use the evacuation chair.”

Schools and other institutions are often required to do three fire drills a year, which is a great opportunity to practice use of the evacuation chair. The chairs are designed to be simple and so easy to use so that the individual being evacuated can explain to any layman exactly what assistance he or she needs. 

However, the chair user will need to have practiced the procedure in order to be able to explain it, especially as his or her usual helpers may be unavailable during a true emergency. 

Another reason to do drills with the chair before an emergency is that each individual’s evacuation plan can vary. De Jaray encounters this frequently in his work. 

Often, the situation can be resolved easily, such as storing a medical cushion by the evacuation chair for some users. But that requires advance planning. 

De Jaray remembers a man in Maryland, who had a bad back and bad knees. An ex-Navy SEAL, he could walk down a hallway but not a flight of stairs. Then the man watched a Garaventa Lift training video, which led to a discussion about whether he could get into the chair. 

“We had assumed he could squat since he walked into the room, but his knees would buckle, jarring his bad back. It turned out he sits on a special office chair during the day with extensive posture support. He showed me the chair, and the evacuation plan we were able to develop for him was that he would wheel the office chair with him to the central elevators in this building. He could then sit in his office chair and use the hydraulic piston to lower the chair to its lowest position, and then we could transfer him into the evacuation chair,” De Jaray says. “His anxiety and pain were resolved, which wouldn’t have happened in a real emergency. He may have refused to get into the chair because of chronic pain. But now that he knows what to do for himself, we’ve been able to alleviate that, which we could only do by getting him in the chair.”

Plan Ahead

It’s critical to practice these procedures with buildings and individual visits frequently. But wheelchair users also need to be aware of emergency procedures when traveling and come prepared.  

“Veterans with spinal-cord injury or disease and other wheelchair users need to be their own best advocate,” says Mark Lichter, senior associate director of architecture and interim director of facilities management for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “If an alarm goes off, they need to alert other people in the building that they are there and what kind of assistance they will need. Also, when booking a hotel room, make sure the hotel has a sprinkler system. Most multi-story buildings do. Get a room on the ground floor if possible, but the lower the better.”

Individuals who use wheelchairs and their caregivers can also better prepare for emergency situations by checking out information from a number of reputable sources such as the National Fire Protection Agency and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

DHS urges power wheelchair-users to know if the chair is collapsible, its size and its weight in case it has to be transported. The agency also recommends keeping an extra battery on hand at all times and clearly labeling all assistance devices with your name and contact information in a water-resistant method.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) doesn’t require formal emergency plans, Titles I and III require that policies and procedures of public accommodations be modified to include people with disabilities. 

A facility’s emergency plan may already have provisions for individuals with limited mobility but must also include all the other classifications of disabilities as covered in the ADA. For information, visit usfa.fema.gov/downloads/txt/publications/fa-154.txt.

Porth highly advises that everyone, including those with disabilities, utilize Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources and follow its mantra of “Get A Kit. Make A Plan. Stay Informed.” 

“Generally, all building codes and safety requirements are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant,” Porth says. “From the Emergency Management side, DEMA fully embraces the Functional Needs Support Services Guide released by FEMA in 2010. We are seeing more jurisdictions [towns, cities, counties and tribal nations] adopting more planning for those with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. Many businesses are realizing accessibility is not only the law, it is good business. We are seeing more and more of a willingness to adopt accessibility as a ‘given.’

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