Emergency Evacuation Tips for Wheelchair Users and Travelers

Holiday season is here! While that means spending time with family and friends, exchanging gifts, and celebrating traditions, it usually also means travel. Unfortunately, holiday travel isn’t always the fun kind. It means long lines, crowded airports and train stations, and frazzled customers. Actually, holiday season means crowds and lines in a lot of places, like malls, festivals, concerts, and other events. And sadly, where there are large crowds of people these days – including wheelchair users and travelers – there are sometimes bad people wanting to do bad things. If something like an active shooter situation or a large fire occurs, are you and your companions prepared with an evacuation strategy?

emergency evacuation tips for wheelchair users and travelersI served in the US Air Force as a Special Agent for 8 ½ years. In addition to conducting criminal investigations, we conducted protective service operations for high-level military personnel and dignitaries – much like the Secret Service. The most important thing we were trained to do in an emergency or if we came under attack was to “get off the X.” That means your VIP, or principal, is standing on the target of attackers (the “X”) and you need to get him or her out of there as quickly and safely as possible.

Military and government agents are highly trained to respond in these scenarios, and many days and weeks of planning go into preparing for almost every conceivable scenario. Agents know where every exit, road, back alley, safe harbor, and hospital is located for miles around the principal’s location. So how can those of us who are more vulnerable than most expect to fare as well in an emergency when traveling at home or abroad in our wheelchairs?

The reality is that few travelers in wheelchairs know all their evacuation options in the case of fire – or the highly unlikely scenario of a live shooter incident – and find themselves at the mercy of emergency responders or the kindness of strangers. However, there are many things you can do to be actively prepared for a building evacuation.

emergency evacuation tips for wheelchair users and travelers1. Know where your exits are. Whether you’re in a restaurant, a store, or an airport, make note of as many doorways and emergency exits as possible, as well as any obstacles you may have to navigate to get there. Exits in the US and abroad are usually well-lit, either in red with the word EXIT or in green (mostly in Europe) with a stick figure seen running towards a doorway. Just remember that exit signs sometimes lead towards a stairwell (see #3 below).

2. Consider “safe harbor” or shelter-in-place options near you. Elevators shut down during fires in multi-floor buildings, so you may need to wait for someone to come get you if you don’t have a companion, or your companion is unable to carry you down stairs. You may also need a place to hide in an active shooter situation. If you have to wait for rescue in a room, try to keep smoke out by placing wet towels under the door. Stairwells are a good option if there is enough space on landings and your chair doesn’t impede – or is buffeted by – the passage of other people using the stairs. In airports, lockable family bathrooms offer good refuge.

3. Ask about hotel evacuation plans at check-in. Sometimes the front desk attendant won’t know the specific plan for guests with disabilities, but the manager on duty should. Ask for a copy of the plan or get your questions answered to your satisfaction about what to expect in case of a fire – especially if your hotel room is not located on the ground floor. Sometimes the evacuation plan will involve placing you in a sledge that looks like a sleeping bag with straps, but more commonly rescue personnel will have to carry you downstairs and/or out of the building. If you use a very heavy power wheelchair, they will most likely be unable to remove that from the building in a fast-moving fire. The priority is to get you to safety as quickly as possible, so understand that being reunited with your chair or a replacement may not happen quickly.

emergency evacuation tips for wheelchair users and travelers4. Be vocal and visibleUnless it puts you in more danger, do whatever you can to let people know where you are, that you’re immobile (if appropriate), and that you need help. While it shouldn’t be an expectation, never underestimate the kindness of strangers, especially in an emergency. Time may not allow people helping you to consider your physical comfort, but the priority is to get you to safety as quickly as possible. If you travel alone or may find yourself alone in an emergency and can’t shout or speak loudly, consider purchasing and keeping with you something like a compact safety airhorn to let emergency personnel know your location.

wheelchair travel hacks spot gps5. Consider purchasing a Spot GPS beacon. I travel alone quite frequently, and my SpotGPS is my most valuable resource. With it, I’m able to send pre-written texts that I’m okay to loved ones, allow selected people to track my movements, and summon emergency services in virtually any country. The units coast about $170, and there are different annual plans depending on what services you want. I think it’s the best insurance policy a wheelchair user could possibly have when on the road.

This may seem like a lot of things to worry about, on top of typical accessibility challenges. However, the reality is that you never know when tragedy is going to strike while you’re away from home, and as the recent attacks at airports, concerts, and markets have proven, you don’t have to be as far as Istanbul or Paris or Brussels to get caught in the middle of an emergency. Just taking note of a few extra things in your surroundings could save your life.

Are you traveling to an area with a higher-than-normal crime rate or terrorist threat? At Spin the Globe/Travel, I can provide customized travel guides, threat assessments, and travel trips to help keep you safe!

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