They can happen at any time. It can be 1:30 in the morning the night before a major exam. It can be pouring rain outside when someone burns popcorn. Or sometimes, it can just go off for no real reason at 5:30 in the evening, which is the exact circumstances that inspired this post. Regardless, whenever the fire alarm goes off, everyone needs to know how to evacuate and get out safely, but that is even more imperative for people with low vision. Here are some tips I’ve gathered from being in more than my fair share of fire alarm incidents on how to handle dorm fire alarms with vision impairment.
Have all your key things ready to go
I keep a winter coat and robe hanging next to my door, right by my blindness cane and key card, with a pair of slip on shoes underneath. That way, I just quickly unhook items and throw them on as I go. I also recommend taking these items into the bathroom with you when you take a shower, as well as a quick change of clothes in case the alarm goes off while you shower!
Know how to navigate stairs safely
This year, I only have to walk down three stairs to get out of my building, but last year I lived on the fourth floor, so I had much more stairs to walk down, and I’m not known for walking particularly fast. I would practice walking up and down them early in the semester, with and without my cane, to make the navigation process easier.
Have an escape buddy to help you get out of the building
I had my neighbors last year help me down the stairs and let me know when to turn to get to the next staircase, and everyone on my hall knew how to help me if the normal people weren’t able to. My roommates this year guide me down the stairs and across the street to wherever I need to go.
Report to building staff that you are safe
I usually text my resident advisor that I got out of the building and to let me know when it is safe to return. When I first moved in, I let my RA know that I am sensitive to flashing lights when I first moved in so they knew to check in with me.
Have a safe location you can go to while the incident is dealt with
Last year, I would walk down to the campus 24 hour Starbucks. Right now, I’m in the library across the street, but I’ve also hidden in the convenience store next door to my building, depending on the time of day.
Talk to friends about letting you come to their dorms during an emergency
I have gone to dorms of friends during fire alarms as well, since they know I don’t like sitting outside surrounded by flashing lights. Have a couple of backup places you can go as well.
Ask about a fire safe room in the building
If you can’t evacuate, some colleges have a fire safe room you can stay in until you can receive help. While my building does not have one, I know of at least one college in Virginia that has this available for students, and they are available in other states as well.
If you can’t evacuate, call for help
If for whatever reason you can’t evacuate, call your local emergency number (911 in the United States), campus police, and building staff. When calling, state your name and your building name as well as your room number and what floor you are located on. Mention that you have blindness or low vision, and are unable to evacuate, and listen to the authorities for further instructions. If applicable, mention you have a case with your state department for vision loss (called Department of Blind and Visually Impaired in Virginia) or disability. Also contact building staff to let them know you are still inside and have called for help.
If the fire incident originates from your living area, make sure you are able to talk to the fire department
One time, the fire alarm went off in the kitchen adjacent to my dorm and I was woken up by the fire alarm. When I came back, I was believed to have been the one to have caused the problem. Do not let people try to blame you for causing the alarm to go off, and remind them of your vision loss. It also helps to remind them that you were doing something else when the alarm went off- sleeping, for example
Conversely, if you are the one to set it off
Make sure to talk about your vision impairment and work with the fire department to figure out a solution to prevent more incidents like this from occurring. Having your case manager might be helpful here.
Fire alarms are great at alerting people to emergencies, even if they can be an inconvenience at times. No matter what, do not tamper with or modify safety equipment in your dorm, as this can be dangerous as well as against state law. However, with these tips, hopefully your next fire alarm experience will go smoothly and you won’t be the person running out in their underwear with no idea where they’re going. And if you are…well, it happens.