Fire Safety For Autism – 6 Things You Need to Know and Do

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How much time do you think you have to escape from a home fire? Do most of us even consider this question? How often do home fires occur anyway? Aren’t they pretty rare? In fact, in the United States, a home fire occurs every 9 seconds, that’s about 350,00 every year, resulting in over 2600 deaths and 11,000 injuries. So, how much time do you have? Most people think they would have about 5 minutes, but fire experts will tell you it’s actually less than 2 minutes. That’s two minutes to get yourself and your loves ones to safety. That’s not a lot of time and when you add autism to the equation, there may be additional challenges. Are you prepared for a fire emergency? This article provides 6 things you can do to help reduce risk and increase chances for survival for you and your family.

Number 1 – Increase Your Child’s Chances of Survival

A very easy and cost-effective way to greatly increase safety in your home is to use smoke detectors. Research shows that smoke detectors reduce fatalities by

nearly 50%. What kind of devices you use and where you place them can make a huge difference. There are many different kinds of smoke detectors. Look for devices that are interconnected so that when one sounds an alarm, all of them sound the alarm. Devices that use pre-programed voice alerts may also be very helpful for individuals with autism as the alert tells them exactly what to do. 

When deciding where to place these detectors, think about areas where fires typically start, such as the kitchen or basement, but also where you would be the most vulnerable, such as bedrooms. A device should be placed on every level of the home and outside sleeping areas. For the child with autism, a device should also go inside the bedroom. Think about the escape path from all sleeping areas to the closest exterior door and install in all rooms in this path.

Maintenance is critical. Many detectors will begin to “chirp” as batteries begin to fail. Don’t wait for this to happen (especially as it invariably happens in the middle of the night.) Instead, test the unit every month and replace the batteries twice a year. If your smoke detectors are hard wired into your home, make sure you are aware of the care and maintenance required. 

 

Considerations for Individuals with Autism:

  • Let them hear the sound of the detector so they know what it is when they hear it. This can be done during fire drills and/or as part of a lesson plan.
  • For nonspeaking or language impaired individuals, you may want to teach them to use a whistle to alert others that there is an emergency or to help first responders find them.

Number 2 – Make a Fire Escape Plan for Your Home

You absolutely need a fire escape plan for your home. Smoke detectors are a great first step, but you must literally map out your escape routes. Yes, ROUTES. You need two escape routes for every room and two exits from the building. There are lots of resources to help plan out these routes, but all you really need is a piece of graph paper and a pencil. 

Once you have your escape route, the next step is to practice fire drills in your home with your family including individuals with autism. These drills should be practiced in each room and using two building exits. It’s important to run these drills during the day and at night. Visuals can be used to help identify windows and doors that can be used as emergency exits. During the drill, make sure to review key rules such as:

    • Get out, stay out
    • If smoke, get low and go

It’s also very important to set up a meeting place outside the home on the same side of the street, such as a neighbor’s house or mailbox, to regroup once you have escaped the fire. In order to provide a clear path for police and fire personnel, the meeting place should never be directly in front of your home.

Considerations for Individuals with Autism:

  • Flag your home in the 911 system so that first responders are aware and have the information that can help them help your child. POAC has a document you can use if your local department does not have one.
  • Maintain a laminated card or document on your phone with your child’s pertinent information so that first responders can provide the best treatment at the scene.
  • Extremely important! Assign an adult to each individual with autism who will be responsible for that individual in a fire or other emergency. The individual may become overwhelmed and flee or seek to re-enter the home.

Number 3 – Know Your Child’s Fire Escape Plan in School

The National Fire Prevention Association reports that there are more than 3200 fires in schools each year. Make sure your child with autism is participating fully in fire drills at school. You may be thinking, of course my child participates in fire drills in school, but do they really? What is a fire drill supposed to look like and how can they be different for students with autism? A fire drill for general education students usually happens with no forewarning or preparation. When the bell rings, you drop what you are doing and get out. You don’t finish what you were doing, you don’t get your coat, you don’t get your noise canceling headphones or your stimmy toy, you don’t line up in advance or get out of the building ahead of time. You get out and stay out because that is what will save your life in a fire.

Sometimes very well-meaning educators will modify or circumvent this process for special education students in an effort to keep them calm or avoid anxiety or behavioral outbursts. The problem with this is that we don’t want to find out how a student will react to a fire or emergency the first time when there is an actual emergency. All students need to know and be able to comply with the fire drill procedures. If they don’t have the skills to comply, this needs to be addressed in the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as a safety goal with specific objectives to build this skill. These objectives might include skills like waiting, accepting no, transitioning from preferred to nonpreferred activities, etc.

Considerations for individuals with autism:

  • Anxiety is a big part of autism and many individuals with ASD rely on structure to help them cope. Fire drills are the opposite of structure and can feed that anxiety or fear. There are many videos and teaching programs available which address fire safety with this in mind. If your student has a favorite tv or cartoon character, chances are if you google that character + fire safety, you will come up with something that can help your student learn from a character they find familiar and comforting.

Number 4 –  Get Community Support

The community can be a great place to learn about fire safety and become familiar with the concepts we have been outlining here. Plan a visit to a local fire department and/or go online to check it out. Many departments have a great tool for teaching fire safety in a very real way. It’s called a smoke house and it’s a small structure, usually transported on a trailer to different locations, that uses a nontoxic substance to mimic smoke so that children can practice what to do in a real fire. If your department doesn’t have one, ask them to check with neighboring departments. Many communities also have safety events which are great places for kids to see the fire equipment and turnout gear the fire fighters wear. 

Considerations for Individuals with Autism:

  • Some fire departments have decals or stickers that can be placed on a child’s bedroom door to help find them in a fire. Ask if your department has such stickers or a 911 flagging system.

Number 5 –  Know What to Do in an Actual Fire

Everything we have addressed has been in the area of preparation, but what if there is a real fire? First, follow your fire escape plan including having an adult assigned to each individual with autism, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum. There is an assumption that individuals with ASD, who are more profoundly affected, require the adult assistance and those on the more independent end of the spectrum can handle themselves. Well, who would be more likely to hide in a fire? The answer might surprise you. Very often, more independent individuals will choose to hide rather than escape. So, it’s very important to assign that adult, follow the rules (get out, stay out and if there is smoke, get low and go), and get to the meeting place that was set up in your plan.

Considerations for Individuals with Autism:

  • Re-entering a burning building is common for individuals with autism. There are many stories of people with ASD who were rescued and thought to be safe, but who re-entered when everyone’s attention was elsewhere. Once the individual has escaped the fire and been medically cleared, place that person in a locked police car with a caregiver so there is no chance of getting lost or harmed, or remove them from the scene entirely.

Number 6 – Teach Fire Safety

It’s really important to teach fire safety in the home and more formally in the school or other programs. There are some great resources to help including Teachers Pay Teachers (teacherspayteachers.com). This is a website where teachers create and share curricula and teaching programs for a nominal cost. There are over 900 items just in the category of fire safety for autism. POAC’s safety section has links to this and more. Many of these sites have videos, lessons, games, and other activities.

Considerations for Individuals with Autism:

  • All skills that require teaching from blowing a whistle, to following directions in a fire drill, to reporting an emergency, should be specifically outlined in the student’s IEP with measurable goals and objectives.
  • POAC maintains a Safety Resource List that contains some of the best books, teaching curricula, and websites to help ensure the safety of your child.
  • It’s important for good communication between home and school so skills that are learned in one environment can be generalized to others.

Keeping individuals with autism safe is always a top concern for parents regardless of their child’s age or where they fall on the spectrum. Safety and emergency preparedness are often difficult subjects, and we want to think as parents that we will always be there to protect our children but there is more we can do. We can provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to protect themselves and advocate for schools and other programs to do the same.

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