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Why Fire Safety and Awareness Can Be the Difference between Life and Death

By Adam Ledlow 

When Ken Corbett awoke from a nap in his Bowmanville, Ontario, apartment in November 2011, his television – typically aglow during such a midday respite – had gone noticeably dark. With the TV unresponsive despite attempts to revive it, Corbett wandered to the window, threw open the curtains and discovered a fire truck parked in front of the two-floor, six-unit building.

Rousing his still-sleeping partner, Kathy Gibson, the pair quickly got dressed and headed out to see what the commotion was. They were greeted outside their door by the shocked face of a fireman. 

 “What are you doing inside the building?” Corbett recalls the fireman asking. “We told him we were just having a nap and that we were Deaf. As soon as we went outside of our apartment door, we could see the fire right in front of us.” 

 “When we went outside, all the wood was quite red and had started to fall down,” Gibson said. “It seemed like it had been going on for about an hour or so, because the building was already evacuated.” 

 The damage to the building was extensive, and although Corbett and Gibson’s apartment was essentially untouched by the flames, smoke damage forced them into a hotel for six months. Though they initially felt relieved to have escaped the burning building unharmed, it didn’t take long for the reality of what could have happened to hit home. 

 “I kind of questioned myself: Should I have done this? Should I have done that? What could I have done differently?” Corbett said.

“I kind of questioned myself: Should I have done this? Should I have done that? What could I have done differently?”  

 “We didn’t expect that there’d be a fire, so we didn’t have a plan,” Gibson said, noting that they did not have a visual smoke alarm installed in the apartment at the time of the fire. “I’ve never been in a fire or experienced a fire since, so after that happened, we definitely thought it’s time we put a plan into action.” 

 Part of that plan should always include having an appropriate smoke alarm in place, says Ken Jackson, a fire and life safety educator with Toronto Fire Services, which, in the case of a Deaf or hard of hearing individual, should be a visual smoke alarm. 

 “If a fire happens [when you’re sleeping], you’re not going to smell it. People think, ‘Oh, I’ll wake up because of the smell or the heat or possibly the sound,’ but it doesn’t happen. History and statistics prove time and time again that some sort of alarm device is the only thing that is going to make you aware of it,” 

 Jackson says. “It’s an early warning device and the sooner that you are aware of a fire in the early stages, the better the chances you have of protecting yourself and escaping.” Corbett and Gibson now live together in an apartment in Oshawa, Ontario which has been outfitted with a visual smoke alarm in the living room and bedroom, as well as the hallway upstairs near the landlord. But both agree that individuals who are Deaf and hard of hearing shouldn’t have to learn about fire safety and preparedness the hard way like they did.

People think, ‘Oh, I’ll wake up because of the smell or the heat or possibly the sound,’ but it doesn’t happen.  

 That’s where people like Jackson come in. In his role as fire and life safety educator, Jackson works to educate the public – from young children all the way to senior citizens – on the importance of fire safety. However, after talking with members of the Deaf community at Mayfest 2013, Jackson says he realized that information about fire safety is not typically offered to the public in an accessible way. 

 “For the Deaf community, unless the material is directly communicated with them – whether in written form or signed in person – they’re not picking up a lot of the audible information from radio and TV campaigns and other communications that’s out there. I think it is very much of a concern,” Jackson told Vibes. “It’s not been actively addressed in the past.” 

 Chris Kenopic, president and CEO at CHS, agrees with Jackson, saying that there is a lack of awareness about what is available for people to make their homes safe in the event of a fire. “It’s not that they don’t understand the importance, it’s that there’s a lack of urgency. Most of us have never experienced a fire, but for people who can hear audible fire alarms, they have an advantage in that all buildings are required by law to have audible smoke alarms. There’s no law at this point that requires visual smoke alarms in people’s homes – though we are pushing very hard for this legislation at CHS. So for the culturally Deaf, oral deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing community, if they don’t have a visual fire alarm – and most, I would say, don’t, simply due to the high costs involved – how are they going to be alerted in the event of a fire?” Kenopic says. “There is a huge gap here, so the question becomes: how do we go about educating this community?” 

 One way, according to Jackson, would be for educators to use visual-based messaging to reach the deaf community, and work together with groups like CHS to organize accessible fire safety workshops, in addition to traditional sound-based media. CHS will be participating in a number of events during Fire Prevention Week, held October 6–12. To find out what’s happening in your region, visit chs.ca.

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