'Meeting the demands of our day'
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2010
Three years ago, our late chairman, former New Orleans Fire Chief Warren McDaniels, gave a speech at the NFPA annual meeting in Boston that will be long remembered by all who were in attendance. He spoke about his career in the fire service and how joining the fire department had changed his life. For me, the most memorable part of his speech was his description of what it was like, as a person with severe disabilities, to confront Hurricane Katrina.
“My health had deteriorated since my retirement,” he said. “As a result of diabetes and hypertension, I lost both my legs. When Katrina struck, I was just getting used to what it meant for me and my family…dialysis scheduling, getting around, and learning to use my prostheses. With great angst and trepidation, Betty and I made the decision to leave our home as the storm barreled in. We had a motor home and drove 100 miles north and parked at a friend’s home. The evening we arrived, we looked at the TV coverage of the still-raging hurricane and knew everything we had was gone.”
Hurricane Katrina was a disaster that threatened the lives of anyone living in its path and permanently altered New Orleans and the surrounding areas. It is almost inconceivable to think what it takes to initially survive and then recover from such an event. But imagine facing a natural disaster with the kind of disabilities that Chief McDaniels was living with. He said that because of his disabilities he thought about this disaster differently than he would have before he was stricken with his ailments. He had to think about how to get out to stay alive as opposed to staying there and riding out the raging storm.
Chief McDaniels faced an extreme situation, but his story was, and continues to be, a poignant reminder that millions of people in the United States have some type of disability and that they must accommodate for their disabilities in more ordinary scenarios every day. For them, it is likely not about escaping a natural disaster but, rather, about being alerted to a fire in their homes. It may be about teaching an autistic child about fire safety, or it may be about installing home fire sprinklers in a home because someone living in that home would not be able to get out alone if there was a fire.
Over the years at NFPA, we have worked to ensure that our codes and standards development, public education, and advocacy campaigns address the full range of disabilities. Some examples of our efforts can be seen in the latest edition of NFPA 72®, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code®, which contains expanded information on smoke alarms for the deaf and hard-of-hearing; the recent online flip book entitled I Know My Fire Safety Plan, which teaches children with autism important fire safety messages; our e-Access electronic newsletter that reaches more than 30,000 people with information on all aspects of fire and life safety for people with disabilities; and NFPA’s Emergency Evacuation Guide for People with Disabilities, which is available on the NFPA website ( www.nfpa.org) at no cost.
Our work in the area of disabilities is more expansive than it has ever been, but there is more to do. In Chief McDaniels’ speech, he said, “As we have seen throughout time, and right in our own backyards, there are always new challenges. NFPA must continue to meet the demands of our day as they have in the past, seeing leading-edge technologies and emerging threats alike as opportunities to do things better, to do more, and to make a bigger difference. That is clearly a charge we must all take to serve everyone who relies on NFPA for the most up-to-date and inclusive fire and life safety information.