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? Is an elevator needed 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? Are there additional necessary medical equipment the student needs, 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. We suggest displaying the student’s plan and routes in their preferred reading format (large print, braille, tactile symbols). Also consider their reading level (images or symbols for early readers).

If the plan and route images are too large for door posting, choose a specific place for the student to access all safety drill materials, like a binder or backpack they carry daily.

Practice Makes Better

Finally, the most important part! 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. Students without visual cues are at a critical disadvantage. As O&Ms, we aim to ensure safe travel in all situations. This guide helps create a customized safety plan for students with blindness or low vision. It’s crucial to prepare them for fire drills or actual fires in their school. Often, children are excluded from drills, stay home, or rely on others to exit. This lack of preparation is unsafe. We must teach students with blindness or low vision to evacuate successfully, given our understanding of their travel needs.

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.