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January 19, 2003

Sparks firefighters learn how to deal with the disabled

From: Reno Gazette Journal, NV - 19 Jan 2003

David E. Vieser

Laura Casson wasn’t going to let the Sparks Fire Department off easy. She and 25 others filled a room and grilled the city’s chief and assistant fire marshal recently about the way they handle emergencies involving people with disabilities.

Casson is the head of the Sparks Advisory Committee for the Disabled. She and four others at the meeting use wheelchairs. When the fire chief spoke about the recent rescue of a man and the wheelchair he uses at a serious auto accident last December, they paid close attention.

“We are so glad to hear you saved his chair,” said Casson told Chief Lee Leighton.

Motorized wheelchairs can cost about $20,000. One man, who is paraplegic, told the firefighters it would be financially devastating if his chair was lost, stolen, or destroyed in a fire.

For his part, Leighton said, there really is no difference in the way firefighters would handle the rescue of disabled people. Saving their life is paramount, he said.

“We would treat it like rescuing an unconscious person,” Leighton said.

The discussion led to a promise by the advisory committee to set up a two-hour training session for the Sparks Fire Department personnel. The class would include diversity training and awareness of the needs and concerns of people with disabilities.

The chiefs welcomed the idea and said they would ask other fire departments in the area to consider joining them for the training.

Life-saving comes first for the Sparks Fire Department, and the life of a person with disabilities, the chiefs explained, is just as valuable as anyone else’s, and the first priority is to get them out of harm’s way.

“You can always buy a new house, you can’t buy a new life,” said Chief Leighton.

They acknowledged the sensitivities and special needs when encountering disabled people.

The chief and his deputies got an earful of comments and concerns ranging from wheelchair recovery to saving the lives of pets and service animals who assist the blind or deaf.

“We have never dealt with a situation where a guide dog might help lead us to a person trapped in a fire,” said Pete Litano, assistant fire marshal for Sparks. “The dogs we have seen would run away from any kind of fire, it’s their instinct to run to safety.”

A mother of an 11-year-old boy expressed concern about her son’s autism. She explained that his disability would probably cause him to fight off any rescue attempt.

The chiefs explained that no matter how much someone fights with them, they would get the person out of harm’s way.

“If it takes three of us to carry him out, we’ll get three of us to do it, if it takes even more of us, we’ll get him out. It’s our first priority in any situation,” said Sparks Assistant Fire Chief Tom Clewell.

A woman who is hearing impaired asked, through a sign language interpreter, how they would communicate with her.

“There is not a lot of verbal communication during a fire situation, it’s pretty clear, you want out,” explained Litano.

Early in the meeting, one of the firefighters used the term “deaf and dumb” to describe a person with both hearing and visual impairments. Most of the audience cringed and gasped at that comment.

Later, it was mentioned that the term ‘handicapped’ was also offensive. The fire chiefs admitted they were not aware, since most signs referred to “handicap accessible” and “handicapped parking.”

“Please…think of the person first,” explained Lisa Erquiaga, the acting director of the Center for Independent Living. “Then you can say ‘person with a disability’, put the person first, before the disability.”

© Copyright Reno Gazette-Journal, a Gannett Co. Inc. Newspaper.