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Wheelchair users powerless once fire starts

In Sunday' s edition, Northern Life reported the fire-related death of disabled activist Joanne Nother is being blamed on a candle, not a wheelchair malfunction as speculated in the days following her death on Feb. 28 of this year.
In Sunday' s edition, Northern Life reported the fire-related death of disabled activist Joanne Nother is being blamed on a candle, not a wheelchair malfunction as speculated in the days following her death on Feb. 28 of this year. The provincial coroner's office is expected to hold a news conference on the findings of a nine-month investigation into Nother's death November 16 at 11:30 am. The following is Part 2 of a three-part series by Tracey Duguay on fire safety issues involving wheelchair users.Read Part 1 here>>

While Invacare was busy defending its power wheelchair products in the United States, thousands of miles away in Australia, there was another coroner's inquest underway. This investigation centred on the 1999 death of 34-year-old Sandra Lee Rothwell.

The inquest concluded with evidence her power wheelchair caught on fire, but couldn't pinpoint the actual defect.

"I find that an electrical fault in the Rollerchair motorized wheelchair caused the fire which caused Mrs. Rothwell's death. No other explanation is feasible. I am unable to state the precise nature of the fault. This is of great concern, since there are many of these wheelchairs being used in the community," said the forensic metallurgist assigned to the case.

While Invacare may have received the most publicity about alleged product defects, the FDA database is littered with scores of reports submitted by virtually every major wheelchair manufacturer.

Currently, in Salinas, California, an attorney named Tom Wills is representing the family of a man burned to death. It's alleged the hydrogen gas, emitted from the batteries in his wheelchair, was ignited by electrical sparks from his chair (not an Invacare model).

"I learned there are at least three other cases in litigation at the moment involving allegations of wheelchairs that caught on fire, two of them causing deaths," Wills said in an e-mail.

The extremely troubling fact about wheelchair-related fires is the speed and intensity in which the fire spreads. The three things needed by any fire to burn are fuel, oxygen and heat, referred to as the fire triangle. When those three elements come together, a fire can double in size every 10-20 seconds.

As well, because of the physical condition of many wheelchair users, the victims are virtually powerless to save themselves once the flames start.
In the period from April 2001 to August 2005, six wheelchair-bound people in Ontario have died after their clothing caught fire, according to the provincial coroner's office.

One of them was John Wilson, a 78-year-old blind veteran, who died after sustaining third-degree burns in a fire at his long-term care facility in Toronto.

A 2003 provincial coroner's report into Wilson's death revealed the incapacitated man was in the smoking room of the facility when he dropped his cigarette setting himself and his manual wheelchair on fire.

Tests conducted at the Ontario Fire College in Gravenhurst demonstrated Wilson would have been fully engulfed in flames within 90 seconds of the fire's origin.

This wasn't the first time the speed and intensity of a wheelchair fire was documented. Years earlier, a newspaper article told the horrific story of Bill Smorang, a cook at an intermediate-care facility in Vancouver, B.C.

Smorang tried to save the life of an 80-year-old female resident of the home who was being burned alive in her wheelchair after falling asleep while smoking.

It only took him minutes to reach her, but it was already too late.

"The flames were up to her neck. She looked like she was sitting in a fireplace," he recalled in graphic detail. "I couldn't get her off on first pull because her legs were melted to the chair."

Although there are specific industry standards with regards to flammability, the upholstery and foam used in the seating areas on power and manual wheelchairs can burn once a fire breaks out close to the chair.

In another situation involving Invacare, even though Schuler affirmed the company's "cushions and upholstery meet the industry standards in terms of flammability requirement," product defects can and do occasionally happen.

In 2001, the United Kingdom Department of Health issued a safety warning after a large number of seat and backrest canvases fitted on Invacare wheelchairs failed to meet "fire retardancy" standards.

Although the materials were required to be resistant to "ignition by smoker's materials," the health agency discovered the canvas material "appeared to ignite more readily than expected."

Invacare, after conducting its own tests, agreed to replace the canvasses with new ones that met the required specifications and to cover any costs associated by users to get their chairs outfitted with the new material.

When it comes to power wheelchairs, except for the steel frame, almost every part of the device is flammable.

There's complicated wiring and electronics, hydraulic fluid, plastic on the chair frame, which not only burns but emits toxic fumes when doing so, not to mention the two heavy duty batteries capable of generating 24-volts of power.

So, whether it's a lit cigarette, candle, or other materials such as urine, water or loose change short-circuiting the electrical components, as has been reported, the overall situation is ripe for disaster because it only takes one small obscure event to trigger a harmful or fatal chain reaction.

Read Friday's edition of Northern Life for the conclusion of this special report.