Veronica With Four Eyes

Dealing With Dorm Fire Alarms: College O&M

Shortly before my second year of college, I received a few orientation and mobility lessons for learning how to navigate with low vision and a blindness cane. These lessons were helpful for learning general travel skills, but I noticed they didn’t get into specifics about navigating college campuses or using university resources available for students with vision loss. One lesson that would have been really helpful is how to handle fire alarms in my dorm and how to evacuate my dorm building with a blindness cane, so I’ve created the College O&M series to share my most-used tips and strategies for learning about this topic and others. Here are my tips for how to deal with campus fire alarms and the infamous 3 am dorm fire alarms, from a student with low vision who uses a blindness cane.

Keep items next to the door

I put adhesive hooks on the wall next to the door so that I could hang important items that I would need to grab before leaving my dorm unexpectedly. These items included:

  • My blindness cane
  • A lanyard with my key card/student ID inside
  • Seasonally appropriate jacket- this can be a winter coat, anorak, fleece jacket, etc
  • Bathrobe
  • Slip-on shoes- these were on the floor below the hooks

Having all of these items in an easy-to-grab location is invaluable for dealing with fire alarms in the middle of the night, as I just would have to unhook a few items and then head out the door. For students who live in dorms with a communal bathroom, I recommend bringing a change of clothes and blindness cane to the shower if possible in case the fire alarm goes off while someone is in the shower- just don’t put the blindness cane in the shower.

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Learn how to walk up and down the stairs

When I lived in a dorm on the fourth floor during my freshman year, I would typically take the elevator to get to my dorm room, as I wanted to avoid walking up and down four flights of stairs whenever possible. However, I still spent time practicing walking up and down the stairs both with and without my blindness cane so that I would be able to get out of the building quickly in an emergency. Some things that helped me learn to walk down the stairs by myself without a cane included:

  • Counting how many stairs there were in each section
  • Learning where the doors to each floor are
  • Locating the emergency exits on the ground floor
  • Looking for visual landmarks that I could use, i.e my dorm floor had a brightly colored sign indicating which floor I was on

When my friend was a freshman and talked about having trouble seeing the edge of the stairs, I helped them file a campus accessibility report so that bright tactile strips could be added to the edge of the stairs.

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Use a human guide

The people who lived across the hall from me offered to act as a human guide and help me get out of the building during a fire alarm, and I was very grateful to have their help. Before the first fire alarm goes off, it can be helpful to reach out to people on the floor and ask if they would be able to let you grab onto their elbow when leaving a building so that you can get out of the building safely, and have the reassurance of having another person that can help. While I recognize that people may not want to disclose their disability or appear helpless, it makes sense that people who share the same living environment would know about another person’s disability, and a human guide is one of many tools that can help people with vision loss to navigate their environment.

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Check-in with building staff

One of my resident advisors would request that students send a text to confirm that they got out of the building safely if there was a fire alarm, though other resident advisors didn’t check for this. Typically, I try to say hello to the resident advisor or resident director to confirm that I got out of the building okay or I’ll send them a message, so that they can be assured I’m not trapped in the building somewhere.

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Go to a safe location until it’s safe to come in

I am very sensitive to flashing lights and the lights on a fire truck or fire alarm can trigger a migraine for me. Once I am out of the building, I walk to another safe location where I can wait until it is safe for me to go back inside. I recommend that students check business hours for surrounding buildings on campus so that they can find a safe place to go to no matter what time of day/night it is.

Some examples of places I have gone to during a fire alarm include:

  • 24-hour dining hall or campus food location
  • Late-night convenience store
  • Library
  • Nearby classroom building
  • Student center

Alternatively, instead of going to a campus building, I would sometimes go to a friend’s dorm and wait out the situation with them.

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What if I can’t get out of the building?

There are several things that can prevent a student from being able to get out of the building if the fire alarm is going off, though it’s critical that students know how to handle these situations before the alarm goes off. Some options for students who can’t evacuate include:

  • Going to a fire-safe room in the building- the resident director or building manager can provide more information about this
  • Contacting campus dispatch or 911 and letting them know you are a student with a disability who cannot get out
  • Calling the resident director or building manager
  • Alerting someone else outside that you cannot leave

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If the fire is in your dorm

My suitemates set something on fire in the kitchen one year, and I woke up to the smoke detector blaring, not fully realizing what had happened in the kitchen until the fire department showed up. If I had been more awake or in the room when the situation happened, I would have called campus dispatch or 911 immediately, and let the resident director know what was happening via text, though at the time I just ran out of the dorm and headed to the dining hall, ignoring the smell of smoke.

When I got back to my dorm, the fire department wanted to talk to me because my suitemates had blamed me for setting something in the kitchen on fire, saying that I had low vision and it was all my fault. That was definitely not the case, and I made sure to talk to the fire department saying that I had been asleep and while I do have low vision, I had nothing to do with this. While I didn’t receive a housing violation for this incident after talking to the fire department, my other suitemates did, and I received a housing violation of my own years later for something completely unrelated- I recommend reading my post on dealing with housing violations linked below.

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Other tips for dealing with fire alarms on campus with a blindness cane

  • It was rare for a fire alarm to go off during class, but if it did, I would contact campus police to request a security escort to get back to my dorm because I get disoriented from flashing lights
  • Some colleges will send out email notifications before planned drills, though this isn’t always the case
  • In one of the dorms I lived in, the sound of the fire alarm would start playing about 30 seconds before lights would start flashing, so I had additional time to get out of my dorm before the lights started to flash
  • Following the fire in my dorm, we were given a fire extinguisher to keep underneath the sink. I already knew how to use a fire extinguisher, but if I didn’t, the local fire department offered to teach me for free.

Here is how I handle the infamous dorm fire alarms and evacuate my dorm safely as a blindness cane user with low vision