This Is Not A Drill! School Fire Safety Recommendations for Children with Blindness or Low Vision

We likely all have memories of the fire drills during our elementary school days. The alarm blared through the school, and our teachers asked us to “calmly” line up and follow them in a single-file line” to our designated exit door. Upon exiting the building, we walked purposefully to an area that felt miles away from our classrooms and met several other classes for a head count. The principal either walked hard-heeled toward us or galloped joyfully, holding her stopwatch, depending on how quickly students and teachers evacuated the premises.

Something we often take for granted is the attention paid to visual cues during a fire drill. Since it is difficult to yell over a sounding alarm, children are expected to rely on hand signals, body language, and facial expressions from the adults in the building to make sure we get out safely. How do we convey the same information to students who can’t see those visual cues clearly or at all due to vision loss?

As O&M specialists, we want to help you help your students prepare for upcoming fire drills, knowing what they should do if there is a fire in their school. This post will give you points to consider to create the best and execute an individualized plan that includes your child with blindness or low vision in school fire drills. We also share some “tried and true” O&M Travel Pro Tips to simplify navigating a stressful emergency.

Planning the Route to a Safe Fire Drill

So how do we get from the school’s plan for all students to what our student needs?

Get cozy with the school’s fire drill plan and the student’s accommodations.

We recommend sitting down with the school’s plan and a list of your student’s accommodations from their IEP. See if any conflicts exist between the student’s accommodations and the school’s fire drill procedure. Do they have a hard time with loud noises or congested hallways? Do they require an elevator due to physical needs? Do they need one-on-one assistance during travel? Next, physically walk through the exit routes from the school’s plan. Bonus points if you have the student walk it with you! During the walk, look for barriers or potential problem areas (e.g., band equipment on the floor of the evacuation route, oddly placed furniture).

What equipment needs to travel with the student in an emergency?

Consider what the student will need to bring with them. In the school plan, it is stressed that students do not bring any personal items with them. However, our students may have special equipment that must come with them. Does the student use a wheelchair? Does the student have the necessary medical equipment, like an oxygen tank? Does the student use a long white cane? While the opinion on this one is split in the field, we recommend always bringing the long white cane as a travel tool and for identification in emergencies. Make sure you consider and include these pieces of equipment when you create your plan.

What will the student do if they are traveling alone?

Depending on the student’s age, they may have to travel in the school by themselves to the office, library, or the bathroom. However, our students may also have to travel to other providers’ rooms for speech, physical therapy, or occupational therapy. In this case, we need to make sure that the student has a plan for when they find themselves alone in the hall or in transition between two classrooms where they are not beginning the evacuation route from a predetermined and rehearsed starting point.

Post the plan!

Now we have made our plans. How do we make sure that everyone knows it? School routes and plans are required by law to be posted by the classroom door. We suggest posting the student’s tailored plan in the same location. Keep in mind, the plans are not posted for just the teachers and staff. They are also posted for the students to reference as needed. So, we recommend posting the plan and routes for the student in their reading medium (large print, braille, tactile symbol communication system) at their reading level (images or symbols for pre and emergent readers). Due to the size of the student’s plan and accessible route images, it may not be feasible to post this by the door. When this is the case, we recommend that you have a designated spot where the student can find all of their safety drill materials for reference (e.g. binder, backpack, something they carry with them throughout the day).

Practice! Practice!! Practice!!!

Finally, the most important part! Practice! Practice!! Practice!!! Just like every route and procedure that we introduce, repetition is key. It is also important to reinforce it periodically throughout the school year.

At this point you have a strong plan in place for your student that is tailored to them. What else is there?? In the following, we list some “tried and true” O&M Travel Pro Tips for emergency and non-emergency situations.

O&M Travel Pro Tips

Here are some things you may consider including in O&M instruction to make travel during emergency situations less stressful:

  • Draw a large “x” on their back to let them know that you have to start human guide without resistance or questioning
  • Teach the commonalities of exit doors (the push handles on exit doors, rugs, glass windows in doors)
  • Practice soliciting assistance from peers and staff
  • Expose them to the sounds of the drill (the alarm, announcements, and noisy halls)
  • Pre-teach needed skills and routines for the drill
  • Encourage active participation in drills (Sorry kids, you can’t sit this one out or stay home from school that day)
  • Bring the long white cane during drills if they have one

Why Is All This Time and Effort Important?

As the vision service provider, we are seen as the expert. Our students may not be able to take visual cues from others, which puts them at a significant and potentially lethal disadvantage from their sighted peers. As O&Ms, we are charged with promoting safety in travel in all environments and events. This guide has given you the steps to create a plan that meets your student’s individual needs with a blindness or low vision. It is up to you to prepare your student for the inevitability of a fire drill, or more seriously, actual fire within their school building. Too often, children are asked to sit out of fire drills in the classroom, stay home that day, or be expected to follow other students visually or are physically dragged by classmates and teachers to the exit. This leaves them ill-prepared to handle emergency situations.

With our knowledge of travel and the unique needs of this population, it is our responsibility to ensure students with blindness or low vision have the skills to navigate during an evacuation of their school building successfully.

About the Authors:

Dr. Lauralyn Randles, COMS, TVI: Dr. Randles has been a practicing O&M and TVI for children and young adults since 2011. She is a recent graduate of Illinois State University and an NLCSD scholar.

Dr. Molly Pasley, COMS, TVI: Dr. Pasley has taught O&M to babies, children, and adults since 2009. She is an Assistant Professor at Northern Illinois University.

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