Strathcona Park; a quiet residential neighbourhood in the South-West quadrant of Calgary was the scene of a deadly fire last Tuesday April 6th. Brenda Rumpel a 58 year old wheelchair bound Calgarian was trapped on the top floor of her two storey home while the house burned down around her. Despite the efforts of her husband and adult son who attempted to rescue her, the fire and smoke became too much to overcome and they witnessed the flames take the life of their loved one. A truly horrific and heartbreaking scene for the family and neighbours. At this time the cause of the fire is unknown, however the Calgary Fire Department is still investigating the scene to find the source of this deadly blaze.
In the fire service we need to look at situations and scenes like the Calgary fire objectively in order to find ways to prevent them from reoccurring. This is not done with the intention of criticizing or laying blame, it is simply the way we need to conduct our business and learn how to teach the public better ways to protect themselves. In the case of the Calgary fire there was an obvious problem that stood out; escape planning for a disabled person. The fire began in the early morning, at this time Mrs. Rumpel was in her second storey bedroom. Mrs. Rumpel due to her disability had problems travelling between the two floors, so much so that the family installed a lift chair. However in the case of a house fire, attempting to use a lift chair would not constitute a well planned escape. That doesn’t mean a disabled person is incapable of self escape, given the proper circumstances a wheelchair bound person could easily perform self escape within the time frame needed, but special accommodations must be made. However it isn’t just people with disabilities that need specific accommodations for escape, this applies to the elderly, the very young and also people with injuries or illness.
Once again escape plans must take all conditions into consideration to actually be effective. In the case of a wheelchair bound person, assuming you can get a disabled person down a flight of stairs to a point of egress during a fire is not an effective plan. This is not being written with the intention of blaming the family of Mrs. Rumpel for her death, they simply weren’t aware that there was a problem. To be perfectly honest, there are likely a hundred or more homes even within Russell that have situations similar to this, but unfortunately the public has not yet felt the need to take ownership of this responsibility as they have with smoke alarms. Due to this, fire services will continue to push the idea of home escape planning until we see a change in public attitudes towards the topic.
Published in The Russell Villager - April 14, 2010