Alarms blaring, lights flashing, and 1,500 high school students rushing to evacuate a building – and all of them know to avoid the elevators and use the stairs.  This is a fire drill, after all, and from their earliest days, these students had been told to USE THE STAIRS in an emergency.

What happens, then, if you are a student in a heavy automatic wheelchair, exiting your second-floor classroom?

JoJo Tuinstra, a young man from Kuna, Idaho (near the State capitol of Boise), found himself in this predicament one afternoon.  As he told his mom later, he was instructed by his aide amid this drill to do exactly what he had been told NOT to do:  use the elevator as an emergency exit.

JoJo’s mom, La Donna, knew this was obviously not a safe or viable emergency plan and made a point to visit the school to find out more.

When she inquired, she was told that during a fire drill JoJo was taken to the first floor using the elevator. Knowing the pitfalls of this plan she asked what they would do if the elevator became inoperable. The school suggested that teachers would carry her son down the stairs in a stair chair to a manual wheelchair at the bottom and wheel him to a safe location. She countered with yet another question, asking if teachers had practiced this, to which the answer was “no.”

This answer caused a great deal of fear in JoJo’s mother, and for good reason. Under the best of circumstances, with familiar care providers, lifting and transferring a young adult with physical disabilities is a challenging proposition (for both the disabled individual and the aides).  Under the stress and novelty of a fire drill, when spastic muscles will tense and flay unpredictably, it would be dangerous to attempt an unpracticed maneuver.

La Donna knew who to contact for advice on this situation:  Jeff Riechmann.

In the article Special Care for Special Needs Children authored by Jeff Riechmann, retired firefighter and veteran, it is made clear that lifting an older child or young adult with spastic cerebral palsy can be difficult under normal conditions due to the muscle spasms that are a regular occurrence with this condition. If this person is in a stressful situation, like a structure fire, these muscle spasms become more frequent and intense.  Jeff Riechmann is also the Co-founder and Executive Director of Courageous Kids Climbing, a non-profit based in McCall, Idaho, whose mission is to provide kids with disabilities, physical or developmental, with free opportunities to experience various forms of rock climbing.  JoJo and La Donna met Jeff through a Courageous Kids Climbing event, and over the years attended several additional events.

These free events are supported by first responders who have rope rescue skills (high-angle rescue) by utilizing the organizations’ haul system alongside their own equipment. Other first responders participate in climbing events through Climbing on Stuff, where school age children that are blind are given the opportunity to look at things with their hands, and Ice Climbers, where first responders stand-by while kids with disabilities take to the ice with the Eastern Washington University hockey team or the Boise University hockey club.

JoJo poses with the firefighters who helped him reach the top of a 30-foot climbing wall.

JoJo poses with the firefighters who helped him reach the top of a 30-foot climbing wall.

JoJo poses with the firefighters who helped him reach the top of a 30-foot climbing wall.

La Donna found herself contacting Riechmann again this past holiday season.  JoJo, a gifted pianist, had performed during a special event at a local, historic mansion.  The facility added an exterior wheelchair lift several years ago, and it was able to get JoJo (in his wheelchair) into the building.  On the way out, however, the below-freezing temperatures had rendered the lift inoperable, and JoJo was effectively “stuck” up a flight of stairs, unable to exit the premises.  It was JoJo’s Grandma Kathy who suggested (perhaps somewhat in jest?) that they should call the fire department.

Because of the experience they had with Courageous Kids Climbing, and the encounters with first responders at those events, La Donna knew that the fire department was exactly the right answer in this situation.  Part of the training Riechmann had provided was how to think outside of the box, and that’s just what they needed.

The fire department was called, but their truck was not equipped with a stair chair. These firefighters relied on La Donna to guide them on moving JoJo and his heavy automatic wheelchair, by hand, safely down the stairs. It was brute force with the wheelchair, and gentle steps and lots of encouragement with JoJo.  La Donna commented, “These fire fighters had a willingness to be guided by me and a lifetime of experience in handling JoJo’s body.” She also noted, “There is never a shortage of people willing to help, but there just hasn’t been a safe way to do it.”  It took La Donna, plus 3 firefighters to assist JoJo down the steps of the mansion.  It was not an emergency situation, and they had all the time they needed to safely plan and execute the maneuver.

With JoJo safely out of the building, La Donna immediately contacted Riechmann with yet another story to share.  What could they, should they, do in a situation like that?  In search of a solution that would help keep JoJo safe in case of an emergency. Riechmann recalled receiving a sample of the MedSource Patient Mover Rescue Chair at a recent conference and felt that this product may provide the answer.

The MedSource Patient Mover Rescue Chair is made of a heavy-duty, non-woven polypropylene material that is foldable, making it easy to carry in a backpack, and is fitted with multiple handles so that several people can assist in moving a person.  The individual is safely tucked into the mover and fully supported by the material of the rescue chair.

Riechmann reached out to MedSource Labs in Chanhassen, MN to inquire about the patient movers with a willingness to purchase a case that he would distribute to families that could benefit from them.

MedSource Labs responded by sending a case (10 patient movers) to Riechmann free of charge. Todd Fagley, Founder and CEO of MedSource Labs commented, “MedSource Labs has always focused on improving patient outcomes through innovation of medical products/devices. The innovative use of our MedSource Patient Mover Rescue Chair by Courageous Kids Climbing speaks to our mission and takes it one step further by improving the overall quality of life and well-being of individuals with disabilities.” Fagley went on to say, “MedSource Labs is humbled by the opportunity to provide for and service an organization that is creating a more inclusive world for all people.”

JoJo checks out a fire hose at a climbing event in Boise

JoJo checks out a fire hose at a climbing event in Boise.

JoJo checks out a fire hose at a climbing event in Boise.

Riechmann and JoJo have since received their order of MedSource Patient Mover Rescue Chairs and have put them into practice as a part of their emergency rescue plan.

As a result of the above, Riechmann, La Donna, and JoJo, now a student at Boise State University, have put together a training program for local first responders to learn about assisting citizens in their community with disabilities. Thesefirst responders will receive the opportunity to practice using the patient mover and gain first-hand knowledge on best practices and techniques in assisting JoJo and others safely.

In response to MedSource Labs’ query to Riechmann’s hopes for the future, he said, “Courageous Kids Climbing has far exceeded any expectations that I have had for it! Watching the kids with special needs achieve new heights in their lives has been very rewarding. My dream is to continue to grow this opportunity and watch these courageous climbers RISE ABOVE!”

To learn more about Courageous Kids Climbing please view the following PDFs here.

thumbnail of CKC_MSL