Author(s): Lisa Braxton. Published on July 1, 2011.

Outreach, by Lisa Braxton

Knowing Your Audience
Why first responders need to prepare for people with developmental disabilities

NFPA Journal, July/August 2011 

In a fire, people with developmental disabilities or cognitive deficits may not be able to take life-saving actions. They may wait for verbal instructions on whether to escape, decide to stay inside until rescuers arrive, or run back into a burning building to seek shelter where they feel safe.



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Fire and life safety experts say that, in an emergency, it is critical that firefighters know ahead of time that they are responding to persons with developmental disabilities and that they understand the characteristics of those disabilities.

One such disability is autism, which has been in the news a lot lately. A study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests the disorder may be far more prevalent than suggested by earlier research. That’s a concern for first responders like Bill Cannata, a captain with the Westwood Fire Department in Massachusetts. Cannata is also statewide coordinator of the Autism and Law Enforcement Education Coalition (ALEC), which trains first responders to recognize situations involving people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Cannata says his department conducts 911 registration workshops for families and holds open-house events to allow first responders and people with autism to get to know each other before an emergency occurs. On calls involving a person with autism, for example, the department tries to limit the number of personnel entering the home. “Interactions with people on the autism spectrum can be difficult,” Cannata says. “If you get a lot of people into the personal space of a person with ASD, you can cause a lot of anxiety.”

Parents of children with autism can prepare in advance of an emergency by reading I Know My Fire Safety Plan with their children, a social story intended for high-functioning children with autism. Designed by NFPA with input from psychologists, educators, firefighters, and parents, the story teaches children what to do if a smoke alarm sounds. The story is available online at

“There’s no reason that people with developmental disabilities can’t learn fire safety — you just have to know how to teach it,” says Stacy Everson, RN, a member of the NFPA Fire Safety for People with Disabilities Task Force. Everson is also the founder of SEEDS Educational Services, a not-for-profit organization that works with people who have cognitive disabilities, teaching them social skills and fire safety. SEEDS also trains agency personnel and fire safety educators to teach fire safety to people with developmental disabilities.

“When you’re talking to adults, you need to put away the coloring books, fire hats, and badges,” she says. “You need to teach people based on their capacity to learn with age-appropriate tools.”

Everson says using flash cards, role playing, and repeat demonstrations can be effective teaching methods, as can leaving materials behind at group homes or agencies so staff can use them to reinforce  fire safety behaviors with the persons with disabilities weeks after the presentation.

Both Cannata and Everson say their training programs have received positive responses from fire safety educators. Cannata says after conducting a training session in Alabama, emergency responders were called to a motor vehicle accident. They noticed the mannerisms of a child in the car and identified them as indicators of autism.

“He was trying to bolt,” Cannata says of the child. “Responders jumped in to assist and knew exactly what to do to keep the situation from escalating.”

For more information on fire safety for people with disabilities, visit

Lisa Braxton is public education project manager at NFPA.