Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 6, 2013

Adapted in TC: Planning for fire takes on whole new meaning

Local columnist

---- — Fire!!!!

For people with disabilities, senior citizens and other high risk populations, this is an especially terrifying declaration.

Years ago, when I wanted to live alone, my loved ones worried about my safety in case of a fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 85 percent of all fire deaths occur in the home.

During my early rehabilitation as a patient at U of M Hospital, I had seen plenty of people who’d been seriously injured and burned in fires. Many had severe lung problems from smoke inhalation, including smoke from household goods made from plastics.

In order to alleviate my loved ones fears, I had my downstate fire department come to my apartment and teach me how to properly use a fire extinguisher, tie bedding together so I could hoist myself out a low main floor window, assemble a makeshift evacuation chair, decide what type of smoke detectors I needed, how to inspect and repair my clothes dryer/heat vents/scald shut-off valves, decide which window to put an emergency ID rescue sticker in and how to do practice fire drills.

Now that I live with my family in a multi-story house in northern Michigan, we’ve continued and improved upon those early practices. However, when it comes to fire safety, one-size fits all doesn’t work. People with different disabilities need different things. Some disabilities (and medication use) impair reaction time, other disabilities impact mobility or ease of escape and mental health concerns may impact understanding of and acting in an emergency.

Often people feel most vulnerable to fire in their homes when they’re alone or sleeping. Other times, it’s outside of their homes, when they’re in a crowded public place like a movie theater, airplane or sports arena. Nonetheless, each of us can prepare for what works best for us in most situations.

Meredith Wells Hawes, GT Metro Fire Department Fire and Life Safety Educator, says she encourages individuals and organizations to partner with local fire departments to incorporate input, create customized messages and assist in identifying the appropriate delivery vehicles for those messages. Fire departments want to work with people’s abilities and tackle the obstacles in both fire and life safety.

I’ve been in public places and other people’s homes when fire has broken out. Knowing what to do helped me be less afraid.

It also saved my life.

According to Meredith, here are a few examples of fire safety equipment or tools people might not be aware of:

• Smoke Alarms. Smoke alarms must be placed properly and maintained in order to work. Alarms should be in every sleeping area, outside every sleeping area, and on each level of the home. She recommends interconnected/hardwired alarms with a batter back-up if possible, and also suggest that alarms have both photoelectric and ionization detector properties. 10 year lithium batteries are now available as well. Alarms need to be replaced after 10 years.

• Specialized Alarms. For people who are deaf or hard of hearing, smoke alarms are available with strobe lights, bed shaker vibration, and/or lower frequencies. Alarms are available that work off the traditional alarms in the home such as the Lifetone HL. Alarms can also record a voice such as a parent for better response from younger children. Everyone should practice their home escape drill using the sound of the alarm to be sure it wakes all family members.

• Knox Box. A Knox Box, known officially as the Knox-BOX Rapid Entry System, is a small, wall-mounted safe that holds building keys for fire departments, Emergency Medical Services, and sometimes police to retrieve in emergency situations. Local fire companies can hold master keys to all boxes in their response area, so that they can quickly enter a building without having to force entry or find individual keys held in deposit at the station.

Knox Boxes are linked via radio to the dispatch station, where the dispatcher can release the keys with DTMF tones. Knox Boxes allow residents to keep their home secure but allow help in as needed. They can be especially helpful for people who experience frequent falls or are recovering from an injury. Additional information can also be added about the layout of the home and any important details about individuals or where they sleep.The boxes can be a short or long term safety feature for residential homes. For more information, visit

• Smart 911. Smart 911 is a free service that allows citizens across the U.S. to create a Safety Profile for their household that includes any information they want 9-1-1 to have in the event of an emergency. Then, when anyone in that household dials 9-1-1 from a phone associated with their Safety Profile, their profile is immediately displayed to the 9-1-1 call taker providing additional information that can be used to facilitate the proper response to the proper location. At a time when seconds count, being able to provide 9-1-1 with all details that could impact response the second an emergency call is placed could be the difference between life and death. Smart 911 is now available in Grand Traverse County:

•Residential Home Fire Sprinklers. The cost of residential sprinklers are now quoted at a national average of approximately $2 a square foot and in California as low as 48 cents a square foot. People need to know that it is at least an option when building and it’s an option to retrofit a home in very attractive ways. See the National Fire Protection Association website above.

• Home Escape Planning. Work with your fire department and your family to create a plan that works for you. Every home has different dynamics. Consider the age and ability of those in your home to plan for who may need assistance and give yourself the advantage of time by thinking ahead about what you might need. Remember to have an escape ladder for second-story rooms, and check to be sure windows can be opened easily. If mobility is a concern, be sure to have the following items close by where you sleep: a land-line phone or mobile phone that is charged or charging, emergency numbers including those of a neighbor who may be able to assist after calling 911, wheelchair/walker/canes, eye glasses/hearing aids, a flashlight and whistle to alert first responders that you need help, a fire retardant blanket, additional towels or sheets to keep smoke from entering rooms, and medications.

Hall of Fame

Gladys Munoz, recipient of the 2013 Sara Hardy Humanitarian Award, for helping Spanish speaking members of our community access medical and community resources and services.