Fire safety poses another obstacle for the disabled

If senior Jeff Murray ever found himself caught in the upper levels of a campus building when a fire breaks out, he would not exit the building, but rather, he would sit patiently and await his fate in the stairwell. Since elevators are shut down during a fire alarm and some firefighters deem it too risky for anyone else to carry someone out, fire safety can be a great concern for someone who is handicapped. For people like Murray who are confined in a wheelchair, a simple fire drill can be a frightening experience, Murray said.

“If a fire should happen, I might get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

To add clarity to emergency procedures for the handicapped and the entire student body, the university is revising its emergency response manual for the first time in eight years. The changes will focus more on how individuals should respond instead of focusing on how the university should respond, said Jeff Baker, director of environmental safety.

“It is putting out a guide for the community itself,” Baker said. “It basically just tells people how to get out of the building alive.”

The revised manual advises handicapped people to seek shelter in a stairwell during a fire. Fire codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act requires a stairwell have fire-resistant doors that could withstand a fire for at least one hour.

While firefighters say this leaves enough time for them to rescue someone, Murray said the idea of waiting in a building being consumed with flames is unsettling.

Murray said the prospect of waiting in a stairwell became more harrowing after Sept. 11. The thought of handicapped people waiting in the stairwells of the World Trade Center for help that would never come is very sobering, he said.

“I can’t imagine waiting for someone and no one shows up,” Murray said. “I laid awake for two days thinking about that.”

Lt. Adam Fuller of the Central Campbell Fire Department said any handicapped person caught in a fire should notify someone to relay the message to firefighters that a handicapped person is in the building. Even if the person happens to be alone in the building, Fuller said the stairwells provide a temporary safe refuge.

“We are going to check the whole building and we are going to get everyone out as quickly as possible,” Fuller said.

Carol Maschinot, a disabled student reliant on a wheelchair, said she doesn’t know how she would react in a dire situation like that.

“I wouldn’t want anyone flinging me over their shoulder, but I don’t want to have to wait in the stairway,” Maschinot said.

Dale Adams, director of Disability Services on campus, said those with handicaps should plan how to react before an emergency such as a fire would arise. He said he advises students with disabilities to note where exits are in buildings and figure out where to go in case of an evacuation.

“You have to be thinking ahead,” Adams said.

Despite these fears expressed by those with handicaps, Capt. Ray Dishman of the Central Campbell Fire Department said Northern Kentucky University is the most fire secure campus in Kentucky. Dishman said all the buildings on campus are no more than 33 years old, meaning they were built under modern fire codes, equipped with good sprinkler systems and fire exits. This makes updating them easier, Dishman said. Also, Dishman said the university aids the fire department in educating the public regarding fire safety and complies with the ADA.

“The people at NKU are real fortunate,” Dishman said. “They have people who care and want to listen to make things right.”

Another feature favoring the university is its concrete structure. Baker said the concrete is more resistant and can help contain fire from spreading from floor to floor.

“We are pretty safe,” Baker said. “Obviously accidents can happen. If people pay attention to fire alarms or get out of the building or move into the stairwell, no one should be hurt or killed.”