Whether we’re talking day-to-day safety or emergency planning, most multifamily buildings and HOAs have something on the books to address both standard operating procedures and things like alerts and evacuations. And that’s great if you’re a relatively young, able-bodied resident – but what if you, or a loved one or neighbor, are elderly, or live with a mental or physical handicap, or are a kid with working parents who takes care of younger siblings? Who looks out for the safety of these folks, and makes sure they’re accounted for should a fire, power outage, or other emergency arise? How can boards, managing agents, and residents promote the safety and security of the more vulnerable members of their community, both day-to-day and in emergency situations? What happens during a major weather event? Or an electrical blackout, when power goes off for 24 hours or more?
First, let’s examine who the “vulnerable residents” really are. According to Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist at the National Fire Prevention Association based in Quincy, Massachusetts, generally speaking, there are five categories of disability: lack of mobility; impaired vision; deafness or impaired hearing; speech disorders or inabilities; and cognitive disabilities. Each of these categories represents a different challenge when it comes to managing emergency situations.
“Folks with mobility disabilities use one or more devices—things like canes, crutches, manually-operated wheelchairs, scooters—whatever they need to maneuver through their environment,” Fraser explains. Anyone who has difficulty walking—or indeed, is even extremely uncoordinated—is considered disabled in this way for our purposes. “A mobility disability can be an issue with any part of a body. Maybe you can’t open doors, or you can’t go down stairs, you can’t press keypads, whatever that might be.”
An important consideration here is that not all mobility issues are obvious to the eye. Fraser himself mentions this when he gives lectures on the subject. “I played hockey in high school and college and have had operations on both knees,” he says. “So if I had to run down 10 or 12 flights of stairs in a hotel, I couldn’t run. It might take me too long - and you can’t see that. I also happen to be Type II diabetic as I’ve gotten older, and what else you can’t see is I had heart surgery in 2007 and I’ve got two stents in my heart.” In his case—and there are many, many more like him—someone who looks perfectly able to walk down 70 flights of stairs may have extreme difficulty doing so.
“When you get into blindness or low vision, that includes people with partial or total vision loss,” Fraser says. “Some people with this disability can distinguish light and dark, sharply contrasting colors, and very large print, but can’t read small print and have trouble negotiating dimly-lit spaces, or tolerating hard glare. Many people who are blind depend on their sense of touch and their sense of hearing to perceive their environment, what’s around them. There’s a risk that a person with a visual impairment could miss a visual cue such as a new obstruction that occurred during the event that could affect egress, so if something falls off a wall of a building or gets moved because of an earthquake, they’re not going to see it.”