I remember the day like it was yesterday: November 13, 2013. It was the day my life changed; not for the better, not necessarily for the worse. It just changed. It was the day my youngest son, Micah, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Since Micah was very young, my wife, Teresa, and I noticed something different in him that we did not see in our two older boys. Teresa was the first to notice something odd. Perhaps it was his constant humming when he would focus on something or his delay in communication abilities. But it wasn’t until we received the formal diagnosis on November 13, 2013 before I finally accepted the fact that my son was “different”. From that day, my life has been different. My life has been filled with doctor’s appointments, meetings, and on occasion…embarrassing melt-downs in public places. To the general public who doesn’t know Micah, he can seem like a spoiled 5 year old boy who doesn’t get his way. But in reality, he’s a caring, loving and energetic boy who enjoys football and Power Rangers; but most importantly is filled with compassion for his brothers and others. I wish in those melt-down moments that I could share with others the Micah that I know.
In my full-time occupation I am a Fire Marshal with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division. One of my responsibilities is to inspect school buildings. I remember inspecting a school and a teacher telling me a story of a student who did not want to walk by the fire alarm notification appliance (the horn and strobe on the wall) out of fear it may go off. Unfortunately, this fear is a reality for many people on the autism spectrum. But did you know there are other options?
Technology, in relation to fire alarm systems is constantly changing and improving. The days of the loud horns and bright strobes are transitioning to emergency voice alarm communication systems (EVACS) with signs that give people instructions on what to do in an emergency. These systems give voice instructions, as opposed to the loud horns that so many of us have grown accustom to in buildings. Strobes are being replaced with graphic signs so those with hearing impairments can take appropriate action (see “photo” below).
I am one of a handful of fire code officials on the national committee that writes NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code©. All 50 states follow NFPA 72 for the installation and maintenance of fire alarm systems. As a committee, we understand autism diagnoses are growing and these children will eventually occupy our schools and businesses. We are developing procedures in the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code that fire alarm designers and building and fire code officials can use when occupants with sensory needs will occupy the building. In order for us to develop procedures that meet the needs of the broad autism spectrum we are working with Oklahoma State University’s Fire Protection Technology program to create a survey for parents and educators.
If you have an interest in assisting us with our research and completing the survey, please e-mail me at John.Swanson@state.mn.us.
John has been a firefighter and fire marshal for 15 years. He is the Deputy State Fire Marshal – School Inspector/Plans Examiner with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal Division and is responsible for inspecting public schools in the state of Minnesota and reviewing architectural and engineer drawings to ensure compliance with state codes. He lives in Lakeville, Minnesota with his wife Teresa, and three boys; David, Ben and Micah.