Safety evacuations for people with disabilities

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) -- One day after an apartment fire in Green Bay, Action 2 News is taking a closer look at emergency evacuations, for people who may struggle getting out quickly.

The fire happened at about 4:00 Tuesday afternoon, at the Monroe Plaza Apartments in downtown Green Bay. The building houses mainly people who are elderly or have a disability.

The fire started in a dumpster outside, and most of the apartments were cleared. Only several had damage from the smoke and fire.

Still, evacuating tenants was a struggle for emergency responders.

“With the size of the building and with the physical disabilities, as well as elderly, it just is another added challenge for the building of that size,” says Lt. Shauna Wachholz, Green Bay Metro Fire Department.

The apartment holds 197 apartments, and is at full capacity. Because there’s so much space to cover, and many of the residents have disabilities, some were unable to get out.

“In [Tuesday’s] fire, we had people shelter in place. Because they weren't able to safely exit the building on their own,” Lt. Wachholz tells Action 2 News.

At ten stories high, the Monroe Plaza Apartments is one of the tallest buildings in Green Bay.

Action 2 News found that it meets all requirements – though City Fire Prevention Code says older buildings can be grandfathered in, even if they don’t meet code.

That could be one reason why some residents struggled evacuate, or knowing when to evacuate.

“I couldn't hear the smoke alarm. I happened to look out the window. I see some black smoke,” says tenant Richard Zeutzius. “That’s when I got dressed a little bit and got out. Because I couldn’t hear that smoke alarm.”

Even with his hearing aids, Zeutzius says he wasn’t able to hear the alarms going off.

But aging and disability specialists say there are ways to prevent that sort of issue.

“Okay, this person has a hearing impairment. How is he going to know that there's a fire? Flashing lights might work, but what if he was sleeping? So then we could be thinking of something that would be vibrating, and letting him know,” says Sue Premo, Executive Director at Options for Independent Living.

For those in need of special assistance, Independent Living Coordinators are available to visit their homes. They will safety check every room, and create an evacuation plan in the event of an emergency.

“[They will] really look at what that, what’s important to that individual, what their environment is like. And make recommendations based on those individual needs,” Premo explains.

Lt. Wachholz also suggests planning ahead with a neighbor or friend.

“If you have a friend who lives next door, if there ever is an emergency, have your neighbor or somebody come over and let you know, 'Hey, the fire alarm's going off,’” she says.