Fire Safety for Your Special Needs Child

Published on in Trisomy 21 Update

While every family should have a home fire safety plan, it's even more critical if you have a family member with cognitive or physical disabilities. These individuals are 2.5 to 6.5 times more likely to die in a house fire. However, there are a number of safety precautions you can take to reduce the risk of injury for your loved ones.

Identify exits

Assess each room in your home and identify at least two exits, particularly in your child’s bedroom. Make sure the windows and doors open easily. You may also wish to obtain child-finder fire rescue decals to place on your child’s windows. This may save precious time as it helps emergency responders locate the most likely whereabouts of your child.

Smoke alarms

Make sure your house has smoke alarms on every level and in every sleeping room.  Smoke alarms can be interconnected, so that if one sounds, all will sound simultaneously. This may provide extra time to escape if the fire starts in a more distant part of the house.

Test your smoke alarms every month and replace batteries often. Some devices have non-replaceable batteries that will last 10 years and may be easier to maintain.

If your child will not respond well to loud noises, consider a smoke alarm that uses a recorded message of your voice, saying something like, “leave the house now.” If your child has a hearing impairment, install a smoke alarm with high intensity strobe lights, as well as vibrating bed and pillow shakers that are activated by the smoke alarm.

Fire extinguishers and home fire sprinklers

Install home fire sprinklers and place fire extinguishers in high risk areas, such as the kitchen or a room with a fireplace. These items may help to keep fires small and allow more time for escape.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), home fire sprinklers only cost $1.35 per square foot, may reduce homeowners' insurance premiums, and reduce the risk of dying in a fire by about 80 percent.

Special equipment

Depending on your child's needs, you may need special equipment to help safely and quickly evacuate your child in the case of a fire.

For example, if your child is non-ambulatory (or ambulates slowly) keep a plastic sled or blanket in an accessible location, particularly near the top of the stairs. It will be easier to drag your child to safety than to carry them, especially under conditions of heavy smoke. 

If your child has difficulty with verbal communication, set up a signaling system — like a bell or whistle — so your child can call for help. 

Evacuation plan

Map out and regularly practice an evacuation plan with your family; all family members should participate. Take photos of every room to create a visual step-by-step plan. Review and practice leaving valuable items behind, staying low, touching doors to check for heat, and “stop, drop, and roll.” 

Choose a meeting place in front of the house; make sure that everyone can identify the meeting place and knows they should stay at the meeting place. 

To see these ideas in practice, watch this video from SafeKids Worldwide: Fire Safety for Families with Children with Cognitive Impairments. Or, use this interactive fire safety plan e-book from the NFPA. The NFPA also has a website with videos, games and activities designed for kids:

Ask a fire expert

Review your fire safety plan with a member of your local fire department. Bring your child with you to the fire station so they can see the fire trucks and learn not to fear the firefighters. Ask the firefighters if your community has a special needs disaster registry, so you can provide as much advance information as possible about your family and your special needs child.

Caution: Supplemental oxygen

If you have supplemental oxygen in your home, please remember that oxygen causes fire to burn hotter and faster — even if it’s not in use. Personal and household items can ignite at lower temperatures if they have previously been saturated with oxygen. Keep oxygen tanks at least 5 feet away from any heat source, open flame, or electrical device.

Absolutely DO NOT allow smoking in your home and consider posting NO SMOKING signs at the front door. Do not use open flames, including candles, matches, wood stoves, and sparking toys when supplemental oxygen is in use.

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