Fire safety for elderly residents

FONDA — Montgomery County Public Health offers fire safety tips for the elderly.

Decreased mobility and sight, hearing or cognitive capabilities may limit a person’s ability to take the quick action necessary to escape during a fire emergency. People over the age of 65 are twice as likely to suffer injuries or lose their lives in fires compared to the population-at-large, according to the U.S. Fire Administration, part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If an elderly loved one has Alzheimer’s or other another form of dementia, problems with mobility, or is vision or hearing impaired, certain precautions need to be taken in the event of a house fire. These precautions go above and beyond the traditional fire safety guidelines for families.

Here are some fire safety tips for elderly people with special needs, provided by the U.S. Fire Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

∫ Mobility impairments

If an elderly loved one uses a cane, walker or wheelchair, traditional escape routes may no longer be viable.

Check all exits to make sure wheelchairs or walkers can get through the doorways. Make necessary accommodations to facilitate an emergency escape.

∫ Keep a phone by the bed for emergency calls in case the person becomes trapped and is unable to escape.

∫ Fire protection devices such as sprinkler systems, fire-safe compartment walls, and flame-resistant blankets can be used. The key is to have the room fireproofed before an emergency happens.

—Blind/visually impaired

The most important thing a blind or visually impaired person can do to improve his or her chances of surviving a fire is to be prepared ahead of time.

∫ Plan and practice two escape routes from each room in the home. By practicing an escape plan, a blind or visually impaired person can escape to safety, without losing time searching and feeling for an exit.

∫ A blind or visually impaired must rely on other senses — the smell of smoke or the sense of heat. Test doors before opening them. Use the back of the hand, reach up high and touch the door, the doorknob, and the space between the door and the frame. If anything feels hot, keep the door shut and use the second exit route.

∫ A person may be forced to crawl along the floor to avoid smoke. Placing tactile markers along the baseboard of exit routes to help a visually impaired person feel their way to safety.

—Hearing impaired

Conventional smoke alarms that sound during a fire aren’t effective for someone who is hard of hearing.

∫ Consider installing smoke alarms that use flashing light or vibration if diminished hearing is a concern.

∫ Smoke alarms with high intensity strobes can be used to wake the deaf or others who have profound hearing loss.

∫ Pillow or bed shakers are required to be used with strobes.

∫ Find out if the 911 center is equipped to accept cell phone text messages or text telephone (TTY/TDD) calls.

—Alzheimer’s or other dementia

If a relative has Alzheimer’s or other dementia, know that even cognitively impaired people oftentimes have an innate understanding that something is wrong during an emergency and may be more clear-headed than expected.

∫ Remain calm during an emergency. Explain what is happening clearly and simply. Validate their concerns but provide clear direction without losing patience.

∫ Providing a picture book of emergency procedures may assist a cognitively impaired person to follow visual instructions more easily.

∫ Practice escape routes. If escape is practiced continually, instinct may take over and guide the elder to safety.

∫ The person should sleep in a room that has easy access to the outdoors, a ground floor bedroom is best.

Regardless of their disability, all elderly people should live in a home with working smoke alarms and sprinkler systems. A working smoke alarm can reduce the risk of dying in a fire by as much as 60 percent, FEMA says.

Practicing escape plans is also vital for all elders. Knowing their escape plan is one of the most important steps elders can take to save their lives in a fire. Plan the escape around your loved one’s capabilities. Know at least two exits from every room.

For more information, call Suzanne Stegich, MCPH community health worker, at (518) 853-3531.

By Patricia Older

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