Several floors up, fire alarm sounds – but you have mobility problems

Picture the scene. You are several floors above ground and the fire alarm sounds. You have not been informed of either a drill or a test and, so, the instructions are: evacuation.

Just one problem, you have mobility issues. You either use a wheelchair or can on walk down the stairs with great difficulty, in pain, and very slowly.


Laura Kolaczkowski.

I was reminded of this situation by an article headlined This is Not  Drill, Maybe written by Laura Kolaczkowski, published by Laura is very well respected within the MS community in the USA. Also, she was one of my top columnists during my time as managing editor (columns) with BioNews. Let’s let her set the scene:

A recent event in a very tall hotel left me wondering why I was so hesitant as to what to do. It happened in Nashville, at the Omni Hotel, which I was staying at for the Annual Consortium of MS Centers meeting. The day I gave a presentation at 7 AM left me tired, and I returned to my hotel room early afternoon to take a brief rest.

I had just dozed off, slipping into a much-needed nap, when the emergency fire alarm rang. At first, I thought let’s ignore the blasting noise of the siren in my room. Perhaps if I pull the pillow over my head I can pretend this isn’t happening. Alternating with the alarm noise was a pre-recorded message ordering me to leave my room immediately and to evacuate the hotel using the closest stairway and a reminder that the elevators would not be operating.

Ignore the warning?

Having worked in schools for over 25 years, I don’t underestimate the importance of fire drills, but this time I was hesitant to evacuate the building. Why would I ignore this warning? Simply put, I was going to have to navigate the stairs, and a lot of them.

My room was on the 22nd floor, and I was immediately cursing my misfortune of having returned to the hotel instead of remaining at the conference, and my even worse luck of having MS and mobility issues. As I lay on the bed listening to the alternating message of pending doom to evacuate immediately and the ear piercing siren, I could only hope it would soon stop and it would be declared a false alarm. Alas, such was not the case, and not wanting to be the headline that read Woman Perishes Because She Ignored Warnings, eventually (as in about five minutes) I did the adult thing and made my way to the stairway and began the long descent to the ground level.

About the only touch of luck in this episode was the stairway was rather narrow, with a handrail on each side that I could grasp with both hands. There were few people in the building because this was mid-day, but most of the few folks who came behind me were kind enough to slow and ask if I needed assistance. Or maybe they just slowed because I had to let go of one of the handrails so they could pass.

No smoke or stampede

Smelling no smoke and not hearing a stampede of firefighters coming up the steps to rescue us gave me confidence that this was not a true emergency. and I told these folks to go on ahead. Telling them I would be fine, but I didn’t mind if I died alone in the stairway because I had lived a full life. A few caught the wry humor, but most were busy saving themselves and just went on their own way.

I remember similar humour a considerable number of years ago. The fire alarm sounded in our office block, but instead of an orderly evacuation, staff members were just standing around looking confused. Someone volunteered the information that we were waiting for admin department to confirm whether it was a real emergency. “Meanwhile, we can all burn to death,” one senior manager commented.

Back to Laura:

I survived the alarms and the stairway but heard from my family afterward that I did the wrong thing. They swear I should have called the front desk and asked for assistance to leave the building. I tend to be a bit more independent-thinking than this and it never occurred to me that there must be evacuation plans and assistance for people with mobility issues.

Lisa and I have enjoyed a number of cruises together and their emergency drills don’t tend to cater for those of us with disabilities. However, we were assured that they have special wheelchairs designed for going downstairs. Great to know they have plans to help the evacuation of people with mobility difficulties.


An example of an emergency evacuation wheelchair. (Pic: Stlfamilylife.)

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Affiliate disclaimer: This affiliate disclosure details the affiliate relationships of MS, Health & Disability at with other companies and products. Read more.

* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.

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Note: Health-related information available on 50shadesofsun website is for your general knowledge only. It is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. I am not a doctor, so cannot and do not give you medical advice. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues. Also, consult a doctor before starting a new diet or exercise programme. Any opinions expressed are purely my own unless otherwise stated.


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