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Living in the Fire Zone and What that Means for People with Disabilities.

A lone wheelchair outside a burnt out home in Coffey Park, Santa Rosa, CA
October 12, 2017. (Karl Mondon/ Bay Area News Group)

I live in Northern California and close to the recent fires in Santa Rosa and Sonoma. The fires were a massive event both during and after. Those of us who live in Sonoma County know many people who have lost everything but their lives. We know people who died in the fire. We’ve visited the shelters and volunteered time or money to help others.

In reading the news stories it has become clear that people with disabilities were impacted the most. This got me thinking about what Assistive Technology is out there to help in emergencies.

Deaf couple describing the fire.
For Sonoma County’s Deaf, the Fires were a Silent Emergency

People who are deaf or hearing impaired did not hear the shouts to evacuate or the banging on the door or the roar of the flames. Assistive Technology solutions to ensure that these people are alerted include smoke alarms with strobe lights and bed shakers (Smoke Alarm and Fire Prevention). There's also technology available to signal when a cell phone is ringing (LightOnSerene Innovations) so people can receive an alert before the fire is at the door. Some states have implemented a Text-to-911 service for those that can't communicate verbally.

Battery backup door openerSome of the deaths were a result of people not being strong enough to open their garage doors after the electricity went out and so couldn't escape in their cars. We know there's that cord that dis-engages the automatic door opener but we don't think about the strength it takes to open that door. The good news is that there are solutions out there - automatic garage door openers with their own battery back up.

A real challenge is presented for those who are blind or visually impaired. Many of those who survived did so because of family or neighbors who helped them to escape. It was hardest for those who could drive but who's vision is challenged at night. Driving on smoke filled roads at 2 in the morning when the street lights are out created a situation where some lost their lives. I would love to see solar powered street lights installed that would stay on after the electricity goes out.

Young Girl lost her Prosthetics in the Fire
Young Girl lost her Prosthetics in the Fire

Individuals with physical disabilities had to leave their homes without their wheelchairs, walkers, glasses, hearing aids, even prosthetics. The good news is that many have donated equipment and technology to help with the road back to normalcy. 

Now is the time to assess our Emergency Preparedness. As we've seen with the Sonoma County fires, people with disabilities are especially vulnerable. There are resources out there to help guide you in setting up a plan for yourself or someone you love.