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Guest Column: Disabled registry will save lives

Firefighters responding to a structure fire face many unknowns and variables. Add disabled individuals with special needs to the mix and it creates a potential recipe for disaster.

September 19, 2008 
By Mike Seaborn

Firefighters responding to a structure fire face many unknowns and variables. Add disabled individuals with special needs to the mix and it creates a potential recipe for disaster.

When the tones go off, firefighters are immediately advised of the type of call. What usually isn’t known is the extent of the incident: How big is the building? How advanced is the fire? Are there any hazards? Are there any potential victims?

If there is a disabled person living in the structure who is unable to escape unassisted, then firefighters face some additional issues: What is the type of disability – mental, physical or both? What is the severity of the disability? Are those with special needs bed ridden or ambulatory? Can they comprehend the emergency and understand instructions?

Fire departments have pre-plans for large buildings. Why not pre-plan for structures housing people with special needs, or have a registry that lists locations in which disabled individuals are living? Such a registry could be intergraded with fire a department’s dispatch system or function as stand-alone registry housed in the responding apparatus as a printed list or on a laptop. In my research, I found that dispatch systems with integrated registry information are being used in some Canadian and U.S. municipalities. Other fire departments use stand-alone registries.


Whatever the system, it is vital that information on disabled persons or those with special needs be kept current. For example, while conducting my research and collecting information, I was in contact with a firefighter from Boston, Mass., where an integrated dispatch registry is used. The department was dispatched to a call and, after consulting its registry, learned there was a disabled individual living at the dwelling that was on fire. Upon arrival at the scene, the fire started to catch on the nearby garage. Unfortunately, the registry hadn’t been updated to include the fact that there were oxygen tanks stored in the garage. Some oxygen tanks exploded, narrowly missing the firefighter’s head.

Registries, whether municipal, provincial or national, would also help firefighters know what to do during and after they have helped disabled people escape the danger of a burning building. Perhaps an ambulance needs to be dispatched upon initiation of the call to provide the disabled person with post-rescue care if the disabled person’s caregiver does not live at the same address, for example,

Randy Vilneff, training officer with the Marmora & Lake Fire Department in Ontario, agrees with this assessment. “Any information that can be provided to the incident commander will help us in focusing our initial search or mitigating potential hazards to the firefighters. Adding paramedics to the mix for post-rescue care will free up the firefighters to deal with the incident itself.”

The responsibilities of caregivers, family members and other professionals are to be aware, not only of the disabilities of their special needs family members or charges, but also their abilities when it comes to escaping from a fire. People with disabilities  may require more help, either physically and/or mentally, when escaping. That level of assistance needs to be reflected in the fire-safety planning that families and caregivers undertake. Every household needs an escape plan and people with disabilities must be included in the plan. Their safety therefore needs special consideration in fire escape plans. Fire departments need to encourage families in their municipalities to designate a member of the household to assist anyone with special needs and to decide on a backup plan in case the designee isn’t home. The designated member should know, review and practise the escape plan.

Registries must be voluntary; no one can be forced to register, but fire departments can play a major role in this kind of public education. In Ontario, the Ministry of Health has some information on disabled individuals but that is confidential and cannot be shared.

If a registry or registries are put into place, they need to be maintained to ensure information remains current. Some might suggest that the fire department should do this but I believe it should be the responsibility of the disabled individual or the caregiver of a person with special needs. The individual would have keep a copy of the information that is in the registry. If there is a change in the person’s health or other information, the individual or the caregiver would contact the local department to update the details.

In the presentations I make to community groups that support the disabled, I have discussed such a registry. My goal is to get this information to a wider audience but it’s going to take time.

Being disabled as the result of a motor vehicle accident, I see many individuals with special needs. We are not crying for the fire department to keep us safe from harm, but some disabled people or people with special needs don’t know how to speak for themselves.  As a chief’s fire prevention assistant who does fire protection presentations for disabled individuals with special needs, I see the need for the firefighters to become involved and help make it safer for all in the home.

Mike Seaborn is the fire prevention assistant to Chief Tony Brownson at the Marmora & Lake Fire Department in Ontario.

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