It wasn’t until a fire alarm at my hotel this past weekend that I realized the complete disregard for people with special needs in emergency preparation. I hadn’t been in an evacuation situation since before my diagnosis, so this was an eye-opening experience.
The alarm went off at 2 a.m. You know, a perfect time for any type of emergency evacuation. My mom and I grabbed our essentials and I sat in my wheelchair to go outside. However, I realized that all the elevators shut down when there is an emergency. So, we had to go with Plan B — walking down the stairs.
At this moment, I realized how lucky I was to even have that option. Otherwise, I would have had to stay and wait for the first responders or my mom would have had to carry me, which wasn’t going to happen. I’m over 150 pounds, and we were all the way on the fifth floor. That night, I had cramping and tightness in my legs. This happens from time to time, so it really wasn’t out of the ordinary that my legs were extra uncooperative. Thanks to this, it took about 15 minutes to evacuate.
After about 30 minutes of standing outside while a fire department cleared the building, it was time for us to head back to our rooms. We heard two different theories about the fire’s cause but it didn’t matter at the time. I just wanted to lie down. As we approached the elevators, we were told it could be anywhere from 10 minutes to four hours before the generators kicked in to power the elevators. My mom and I decided to again conquer the five levels of stairs to return to our beds. My mom fell asleep almost instantly, but I couldn’t because my nerves were shot and my adrenaline pumped furiously.
The next morning, we planned on going downstairs to have breakfast before our departure. The elevators were still out of order. We tried to call the front office, but lo and behold, our room’s phones didn’t work, either. So, we called the front desk and asked for assistance in getting downstairs because at this point, we needed to leave and there was no way I could do all those stairs again.
As we awaited assistance from management for our suitcases and wheelchair, a panic attack brewed. My breath became harder to catch and my palms sweated. A manager showed up and I asked her what the protocol was for individuals with disabilities in case of an emergency. They said hotel policy doesn’t allow them to touch me because of liability issues, so they would have either waited for a first responder or “my staff and I would have figured something out.”
Honestly, I was shocked. I had imagined an emergency ramp popping out of the hotel, like the ones that come out of planes following an emergency water landing. I didn’t know that we didn’t really have sensible options.
My mind flooded with worst-case scenarios and the panic attack made itself more apparent. What if I was fully wheelchair-dependent? What if it was a serious fire and I didn’t have 10 to 15 minutes to evacuate? What about the other disabled folks in the hotel? Why are many of us put on the highest floors of the hotel?
I’m aware not everyone is disabled, but there are enough of us to be considered for a proper evacuation plan. I’m also aware of the hotel industry’s liability concerns, but that doesn’t mean the guidelines can’t be reviewed or changed. To start, locating more accessible rooms on the first floor could make a big difference.
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