Firefighters overcome communication challenge

On the way to a recent call-out involving a smoke alarm, CFA crews from Frankston and Patterson River were told that it was believed the occupant of the home was deaf and blind.


(L-R) Stuart Curnow, Doug Broom, Paul Allan, Heather, Marie, Nick van Heerwaarden, Jenni Raines, Joel Cowton, Sam Tosch, Aaron Johnson

Senior Station Officer Doug Broom said it was unlike any other job he’d been to.

“When we arrived, the smoke alarm could clearly be heard inside. After trying the doorbell and loud knocking on the door, it was clear that if the occupant was at home they were not able to respond to the door,” Doug said.

Faced with a locked door, crews managed to skilfully unlock the door without causing damage.

“When we got in, we found a woman unaware of the blaring alarm, sitting comfortably in her chair, enjoying her breakfast, oblivious to what was going on around her.”

While some crew members made sure there was no sign of heat, smoke, or fire, other crew members made contact with the resident, who they later discovered was called Heather.

“Initially, this was achieved via an ungloved hand touching the arm of the occupant; we also guided her hand to touch a fire helmet, hoping that this may assist in advising who was with her and what was going on.

“After the initial surprise, Heather soon made her way to a paper and pen, writing a note to confirm that she was indeed deaf and blind.”

A following written note indicated that we could communicate via writing letters in the palm of her hand with our fingers. This met with limited success.

After a short time of trying to communicate via palm writing, Heather made her way across the room to her computer.

“It turned out the easiest way to communicate was by typing on the computer, as Heather had a device that translated sentences into braille which she could read,” explained Doug.

Once this method of communication was established, the brigade was able to answer Heather’s questions directly.

“We could reassure her that both she and her home were safe.

“We also discovered Heather has two smoke alarms in her home: a purpose-designed unit that activates a vibrating pager that she wears; and another which sounds a local alarm, which Heather is obviously not able to hear.

“The alarm had accidently gone off as it was faulty. Luckily, we were able to get Heather’s contact at the Frankston Council who has now arranged for it to be replaced,” Doug said.

‘B’ Platoon spent some time with Heather, introducing themselves and explaining how we had managed to gain entry to her locked home. 

“Heather told us that earlier in the morning her cat had been trying to get her attention. Heather now believes her cat heard and was responding to the alarm. It’s been a really amazing and insightful experience."

Following the event, Heather and her interpreter, Marie, visited Frankston Fire Station to meet ‘B’ Platoon members who attended her home.

“Heather wants us to let the broader CFA community know that there are over 13,000 people under the age of 60 with a dual sensory disability in Australia.

“It’s vital that CFA and other emergency services are aware of deafblindness and know how best to communicate with all people regardless of ability.”

If you wish to be better prepared for communicating with deaf and blind people who you may meet in your community, visit the following websites:

Heather is a member of Deafblind Victoria (DBV) which is an advocacy group run by people who are deafblind themselves.

In addition to raising awareness about deafblindness to the wider community, DBV provides an experience called Deafblind World, which allows participants to experience the world as a deafblind person.

If you or your brigade wishes to arrange for this training, please email Heather:

Author: CFA News & Media