Gill O’Donnell argues that schools need to take a proactive approach to fire alarms if they are not to fall foul of the new disability discrimination legislation

It’s obvious isn’t it – the fire alarm sounds and everyone evacuates the building. Or do they? What happens if you can’t actually hear the alarm? We all know that fire safety is essential in teaching areas, but current statistics show that one in seven people in the UK are deaf or hard of hearing. That’s 8.7 million people who can’t hear your fire alarm.

The Special Educational Needs Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people by treating them less favourably – but what could be more discriminatory than putting their lives at risk? Many schools are currently carrying out audits of their premises to look at issues around disability discrimination but too often safety issues are seen as an afterthought.

Education providers are required by law to make reasonable adjustments to provisions where disabled students are placed at a substantial disadvantage, but frequently the argument is that they will realise there is an emergency by the fact that others are evacuating the premises. However, when safety needs are being considered is it enough to place one person’s wellbeing in the hands of another? Surely it is discriminatory to not provide deaf or hard of hearing students, visitors and teachers with the same access to fire warnings that a hearing person receives. Furthermore, safety needs should be anticipatory and so an establishment should not just wait until a deaf person enrols to come up with a solution, but should have facilities readily available.

With the extended school day and greater access to schools this is becoming an issue of key importance. The longheld notion that by assigning a ‘hearing partner’ the school is covering the issue is definitely questionable for in an emergency evacuation expecting one person to inform and evacuate another could create a situation which is life threatening to both parties. It is also degrading to the deaf or hard of hearing person, denies them independence and discourages their participation.

This issue is one which has been the focus of considerable attention within the public sector for a number of years as a result of schemes to reduce discrimination in the workplace and improve the safety of lone workers. Consequently, many major conference centres, high profile hotels and public buildings now incorporate schemes to ensure that nonhearing workers and visitors have access to alarm systems. More recently a number of schools and higher education establishments – particularly those with residential facilities – have now moved towards this new style of alarm system as a way of ensuring equality, safety for all and peace of mind.

A market leader is the ‘deaf alerter’ which incorporates a messaging system that can be triggered at the same time as the school’s normal fire alarm. The radio-based system is site specific and connected to the building’s existing alarm so that when triggered it sends a signal to the alerter unit. This is worn by the deaf student/teacher/visitor and vibrates and displays appropriate text messages. The alerter can provide complete building coverage to give equal access to all alarms and public address announcements, making it totally inclusive for all and creating a safer environment for the student. Every installation is bespoke and follows a detailed site survey, with ongoing support also provided, ensuring that the system is safely maintained. The message manager can be installed through networked PCs and allows free messaging throughout the site. It is sufficiently flexible to allow messages to be sent to individual alerters or groups of alerters, as well as having the option of an ‘all alerters’ function which works in conjunction with the public address system.

Details of the ‘Deaf Alerter’ can be found at

Gill O’Donnell is a health and safety consultant who runs the company ‘Spot-On-Health & Safety’.