When you can’t hear the fire alarm

At 4:20am on October 13 a deaf Whangarei woman’s kitchen was engulfed in flames while she and her great-granddaughter slept.

Thanks to the strobe light on her visible smoke alarm, the woman was woken and escaped the house safely with the 4-year-old child.

Without specialist alarms, many of the estimated 880,350 deaf or hearing-impaired people in New Zealand have to rely on seeing or smelling smoke to alert them to a fire.

Smoke alarms for hearing-impaired people range from visible alarms which have strobe lights, to options which vibrate beds or pillows, to pager-based systems. There are also alarms available which operate at a high or low frequency for those who have the ability to hear certain frequencies.

Residential homes, public buildings and private buildings all present different challenges in ensuring deaf or hearing-impaired people are alerted to fire.

Fire and Emergency’s Takapuna Senior Station Officer Quin Webster has been on a 12-year journey trying to improve fire safety for deaf and hearing-impaired people.

Webster’s maternal grandparents were deaf. In 2005, he visited the Auckland Deaf Society to see if members had questions about fire safety.

“They didn’t really know about the fire service and what we did and how we can assist. They didn’t even know who to go to, to ask questions.

“Basically, it ended up in my lap so I learnt sign language and helped form a partnership with the Ministry of Health (MoH) through another hearing therapist to assist deaf and hearing-impaired people with smoke alarm advice, funding and installation.”

Specialist alerting devices can cost hundreds of dollars. Funding from the MoH is available but Webster said when he first got involved the funding often only covered the installation of one alarm for an entire house, or no funding was available if there was somebody with hearing living in the house.

"You shouldn’t really be relying on a five-year-old to make you aware, it should be the other way around.”

“At the time, they didn’t get funding for alerting devices because if they had a five-year-old child who could hear, the argument was that the five-year-old child could tell you the fire alarm is going off.

“The fire service at the time argued the point that you shouldn’t really be relying on a five-year-old to make you aware, it should be the other way around.”

He worked with hearing therapists from Life Unlimited, a health and disability charitable trust, to set up hearing-assistive technology teams.

The teams consist of a hearing therapist and a fire and emergency service staff member who visit homes of deaf or hearing-impaired people who have met criteria for funding. They assess the type and number of specialist alarms required. Their report then goes to MoH for funding approval and once approved, fire and emergency service staff can install them.

While stand-alone residential buildings are easy to make safe, apartment buildings present a different challenge.

Wester said he once worked with a hearing-impaired apartment-dweller who could not hear the building alarm.

In the case of a fire outside of their apartment, they would not be alerted until their own visual alarm sensed smoke within their apartment.

Currently the building code does not require building alarms to have measures specifically aimed at assisting those with hearing loss. Developers could choose to include them, but it's not mandatory.

For public buildings, however, a change to the building code to require visual alarms looks hopeful.

In 2016 a deaf student was left behind in a fire drill in an Auckland University building. Dean Buckley was eventually found by a warden and was the last to leave the building. After his experience a petition created by deaf and hard-of-hearing advocacy group, Deaf Action, called for visual fire alarms to be part of all public buildings.

“A fire can happen any time at any moment. People requiring specialist equipment should be able to get this instantly from anywhere.”

 A Government Administration Select Committee report on the petition recommends the building code be amended to include visual alarms as a mandatory part of public buildings.

Deaf Action’s chairperson, Kim Robinson, said he expects the response to be tabled in Parliament when it resumes.

“Deaf Action encourages everyone to invest in visual fire alarms.”

For residential homes, he said the funding model could be redeveloped to speed up the process - which he said takes anywhere from a few days to a few months.

Robinson said the long wait for alerting devices is the most common complaint Deaf Action receives.

“A fire can happen any time at any moment. People requiring specialist equipment should be able to get this instantly from anywhere.”

Webster says he is aware the process to receive funding can take time. Fire and emergency staff take measures to help prevent fires during the waiting period.

“If they haven’t got a smoke alarm we will put one in. If we can, we’ll talk to the neighbours.

"We give advice that we give to anyone, night checks, make sure if there is a deadlock, it has a key in the inside. We check to see that they haven’t got over-loaded power points. We check to see what they use for heating, whether they use electric blankets. If there are concerns we raise them and we try and minimise the likelihood of a fire in the first place. That’s really important, we do that with everyone.”

MoH were contacted for comment and said they were unaware of any funding they supply for smoke alarms for deaf or hearing-impaired people.

* To find more information on specialist alerting devices go here.

* If you do not require funding, or do not meet the funding criteria the fire and emergency service can visit your home to give advice on what type of fire alerting devices are best suited to your specific needs. This service is free of charge.

* To alert the fire and emergency service of a fire, deaf and hearing-impaired people can register to use the 111 text service http://www.police.govt.nz/111-txt

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