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When is a fire alarm not a fire alarm?

There are 11 million deaf and hearing impaired people in the UK. Take a moment to digest that sentence.

Eleven. Million.

That’s a huge amount of people that struggle to recognise a fire alarm. Whose needs, frankly, are left wanting. But why?

Here are some genuine responses I’ve had talking to customers about what provisions they have for deaf people:

“Oh, we’ll wait until the fire brigade come and evacuate anyone with a hearing impairment” one Building Manager told me. Anyone familiar with fire legislation will know that it’s not the brigade’s responsibility to evacuate people from the building.

“We have REALLY loud fire alarms” said the Estates Manager at a London attraction. Whilst it’s reassuring to know that the fire alarms on site are exceptionally loud, it’s not going to benefit people with profound deafness.

“We ask deaf guests to leave their bedroom doors open at night in case we need to evacuate them” came the response from reception at one hotel. This left me speechless which I promise, doesn’t happen often.  

What’s the point in waiting until a wheelchair user wants to use your hotel before adding wheelchair ramps? Why does the local college wait until an injury before installing autodoors? The prospective customer/student will just take their business elsewhere.

Considering people with hearing impairments outnumber wheelchair users in the UK by 12 to 1, why do we focus more on mobility than sensory impairment?

One Fire Officer laughed me off the phone at the mention of using an electronic means of alarm notification because ”Deaf people can still see.” People with hearing impairments often require positive reinforcement in an emergency situation. Asking them to rely just on what they can see going on around them can have deadly results.

The buddy system is only as reliable as the buddy, what happens if they call in sick or are not in the vicinity? PEEPs* help to solve part of this problem, giving the deaf or hearing impaired person clear instructions on how to leave the building in an emergency. But it doesn’t help when it comes to actually notifying that person that the alarm has been triggered.

There is also a misconception around induction loops. For many hearing impaired people they’re a real lifeline. However, out of ten million people, only 1.4 million actually use a hearing aid. That leaves 8.6 million people that get no benefit from induction loops. At all. Not a wholly reliable way of notifying deaf and hearing impaired people that a fire alarm is sounding.

Maybe you use a sweep and clear practice to help evacuate people, but do your staff know how to communicate in British Sign Language, the first language of a majority of deaf people in the UK? If not, your well rehearsed, well planned manned evacuation might not be that effective.


Methods of notification

That’s evacuation, don’t forget you have to actually notify deaf people that the alarm has been triggered, common methods are;

Visual Alert Devices (VADs) or ‘beacons’ have been in play for years but are often used incorrectly. These devices should be installed throughout the entire premises for maximum impact. Deaf people don’t just linger in ‘key areas’ waiting for an alarm to go off. A VAD installed only in the toilet is a wasted VAD (Well. Not wasted. Just a bit lonely).

Then there are pagers. Pagers are great. They’re robust and reliable. With the right signal boosters and site support, they can be installed into any location. But with this, comes a high price tag. Often prohibitively high. Pagers are often lost, out of battery or simply left at home.

There are other devices too, like vibrating pillow pads to wake sleepers and SMS devices which send an alert to your phone.

In fairness, there are no ‘perfect’ provisions for fire notification for the deaf. There is a risk with all fire safety precautions, with so many pitfalls, it’s no wonder people get confused and sometimes simply ignore it.

By not achieving compliance with the Equality Act 2010 or fire legislation you close your business to the £25bn annual spending power that the deaf community brings. Deaf and hard of hearing customers always go back to services that cater for their needs.

Businesses have a corporate responsibility to ensure anyone using their building is safe. It’s the individuals responsible for fire safety that would be prosecuted should there be failure to comply. Not the company.

Enforcement action is published online for all to see which could have an unhealthy effect on your business’s reputation. And if you didn’t know, fines are now completely uncapped with turnover and profit taken into account prior to sentencing.

Complacency isn’t worth the trouble it brings. Don’t let fire safety fall on deaf ears.

*Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan

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