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Who is Responsible?

Education institutions must make sure their safety efforts take into account the needs of students with disabilities.

Fire safety is critical on a college campus, but especially so for students with disabilities, who may need special attention or assistance when a fire occurs.

A report funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, "Fire Safety for Students With Disabilities at Institutions of Higher Education," offers several recommendations for how colleges and universities can bolster their protection of those students who have special needs. The findings are based on surveys completed by 50 higher-education institutions.

The report notes that laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act have improved the access to facilities for people with disabilities, but many higher-education institutions have not adequately dealt with how to best provide for safe egress from a building during an emergency.

To help colleges and universities address the problem, the report says the laws governing those with disabilities should clarify what should and shouldn’t be done with regard to emergency planning for students with disabilities.

Two areas that need to be spelled out more clearly:

• Should a school be responsible for providing a tailored fire-safety plan in response to a student who does not self-identify as having a disability or requiring special assistance?

•Should a school be allowed to restrict where students may live based on their disabilities?

"More clarity and guidance is needed for schools to use in developing their policies and practices for students with disabilities," the report says.

Another key element in providing proper protection is for students with disabilities to recognize their situation and what help they might need in a fire emergency.

"Most important, the student needs to be able to react immediately whenever there is a perceived or real threat," the report recommends.

In addition, college administrators need to be more aware of the needs of students with disabilities so that effective procedures can be put into place.

"Students can be at any location on the campus at any time, (so) it is important that there are policies and procedures in place to provide the student with the needed level of fire safety in all buildings—housing, academic, administrative, support and other locations on campus," the report asserts. "Furthermore, it is critical that this awareness be made across the different departments within the institution’s structure that will deal with the various aspects of a disabled student’s academic experience (housing, office of disabilities, public safety and student services)."

The report also recommends that governments update their fire codes to provide more guidance to those with disabilities.

"One area that the codes are not as clear in relation to students with disabilities is what action they are to take when an emergency occurs and there is the need for emergency evacuation," the report says. "… There is an absence of information on procedures and policies for evacuation for occupants to take if they are disabled or for other non-disabled occupants to assist in an evacuation."

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