3 fatal suburban fires show precautions the disabled, immobile must take
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It's a tragic story that has replayed at least three times across the suburbs in recent months.
House fire strikes. Firefighters arrive. But residents who use wheelchairs or walkers, or homeowners who have health conditions that limit their mobility, are trapped. They can't make it out alive.
Suburban fatal fires
A tragic trend of fatal fires across the suburbs have occurred in homes of people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility issues. Here are details about the fires:
1. Nov. 6, 300 block of south Dunton Avenue, Arlington Heights
Fire broke out in a two-story house on a Wednesday morning and went unreported until police officers smelled smoke. The homeowner, 93-year-old Doris Miller, who used a wheelchair, was killed along with her live-in caregiver, 62-year-old Tetiana Krych, and Krych's daughter, 40-year-old Svitana Kandelis of Wheeling who was visiting for the night. Investigators determined the fire originated in the kitchen of the home where a smoke alarm was installed, but not functioning.
2. Dec. 18, 1200 block of Field Court, Naperville
Firefighters were called at 6:50 a.m. to a two-story house to find two people escaping the home and the possibility of others trapped over a first-floor bedroom, where the fire began. In a secondary search, firefighters found 57-year-old Tom Lambert, a brain cancer patient, and 56-year-old Jan Lambert, who was blind. Both died in the fire, although crews rescued Allen Belaguas, the couple's 21-year-old caregiver. He has been battling severe smoke inhalation injuries. The cause of the fire is still undetermined.
3. Jan. 8, 100 block of Beck Avenue, South Elgin
A woman in a wheelchair called 911 about 9 a.m. reporting her house was on fire and she would not be able to leave the house on her own. Her husband was in another room. Police responding to the scene rescued the woman, but could not get to her husband, who used a walker. He died in the fire, which may have been caused by careless use of smoking materials, although the exact cause has not been established. A dog also died in the fire.
Fatal fires have struck in Arlington Heights, Naperville and most recently in South Elgin, killing a 93-year-old woman who used a wheelchair, along with her two caregivers; a 56-year-old woman who was blind and her 57-year-old husband, whose mobility was limited by brain cancer; and a 72-year-old man who used a walker and whose wheelchair-bound wife was rescued by emergency responders.
Escaping a house fire can be perilous, no matter a person's age or physical abilities. But those with disabilities, health problems or the decreased mobility that often comes with age can face additional challenges and should plan accordingly, fire safety experts say.
"First of all, you need to prepare," said Bill Sohn, assistant fire chief in South Elgin.
As is prudent for everyone, fire safety experts say people with mobility issues should develop an exit plan with two ways out of each room.
Because this can be tricker for those in wheelchairs or the elderly, the Arlington Heights Fire Department runs a program called Escape Drills In The Home. The program allows residents to request a visit from a fire education officer who will advise them on how to make their living space easier to exit in an emergency, Public Education Officer Andrew Larson said.
"I would go out and work with a homeowner on developing escape plans from various rooms," he said. "It's one of our more popular requests."
Naperville Fire Marshal Scott Scheller said disabilities and aging can affect each person's ability to move in different ways, so forming escape plans on an individual basis is the best way go to.
Low-mobility residents also should keep their floors free of clutter, remove rugs that may be difficult to traverse with a wheelchair or walker, and make sure floors are dry so they do not become slippery, said Wendy Carate with Senior Services Associates Inc. in Elgin.
Firefighters second those tips.
"If you have a walker or a wheelchair, you should make sure your house isn't cluttered, and you're able to use that (walker or wheelchair) in clear paths from wherever in your house to two exits," Sohn said.
Keeping a phone within reach at all times is another good idea for people who have difficulty getting around. But for seniors or anyone whose mobility is severely limited, having a family member around or hiring a caregiver may be worth considering, Sohn said.
Even then, that's not always sufficient. In two of the recent suburban fatal fires, low-mobility victims had caregivers living with them.
In the Arlington Heights fire, which broke out Nov. 6 at a two-story house on the 300 block of south Dunton Avenue, the 93-year-old homeowner's 62-year-old live-in caregiver and the caregiver's daughter also died. And in the Dec. 18 fire in Naperville, the couple who died not only had a 21-year-old live-in caregiver but also the husband's father and sister in their home at the time of the fire to assist.
Still, basic safety precautions can help all people increase their likelihood of escaping a fire. Firefighters encourage people to install smoke detectors, test them monthly and change the batteries every six months. Models that make a bed vibrate or flash strobe lights are available for anyone who is hard of hearing.
A volunteer assistance program kicked off in Arlington Heights last month to help those who may be unable to reach their smoke detectors with testing the devices or inserting fresh batteries, Larson said. Volunteers will be visiting about a dozen homes today in the program's second session.
If a fire does strike, the same tips taught to schoolchildren apply to people in wheelchairs or anyone who may become trapped in a burning home, experts say.
If possible, head to a bedroom and close the door. Place a rolled-up towel or bed sheet at the bottom of the door to block air flow and open a window. Wait there for the fire department to arrive, breathing fresh air from outside.
"We always talk about making sure the door to the room is shut because doors will hold back a fair amount of heat and fire," Larson said. "A lot of times, it's not the fire that injures people, it's the smoke."
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