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Emergency Preparation and People with Disabilities

Emergency preparedness is a critical topic for people with disabilities to live independently. Twenty percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and many of these people cannot evacuate independently in an emergency. This includes people who are older and may not consider themselves to have a disability. As we reconsider safety in a post-9/11 era, individuals with disabilities, the schools they attend, and the organizations to which they belong need to make sure the environment is equipped for unexpected emergencies and disasters.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that local independent living centers and similar community organizations-- including some service groups-- be included in disaster planning. Most city, county, and state governments aren't aware of this provision, so organizations may need to alert officials. Community-based organizations that serve people with disabilities can help fill important gaps in emergency services. People with disabilities should be included in planning to best avert potential problems.

Mike Collins is the executive director of the California State Independent Living Council, which has several years of experience in disaster planning. These findings come from forums the council held with the disability community after the 2003 wildfires.

Key areas to consider:

Preparation

It is essential that local government publicize emergency preparation for people with disabilities. Prepare and distribute updated press releases and brochures that are specifically directed to people with disabilities, and distribute them through channels that will reach this population. Potential outlets are community-based and advocacy organizations, public vehicles like buses and paratransit, community centers, senior centers, and even monthly utility bill mailings.

People who take medication should keep at least an additional week's supply on hand in case pharmacies are closed. This may be impossible for people whose prescriptions are covered by Medicaid.

Individuals, rescue groups, transit providers, and community organizations should stockpile durable medical goods. This includes urological supplies, items that help transfer people with disabilities, and simple mobility equipment like canes, walkers, and wheelchairs.

Fire protection requires a defensible, fire-safe perimeter around buildings. Some people with disabilities need help creating these safety zones. Volunteer, rescue, and safety organizations can create home safety awareness teams. Disasters such as fire can be exacerbated by brush, grass, and debris, which teams can help assess and clean. Access teams can also improve safety features such as making sure that smoke alarms are in place, working, and equipped with fresh batteries.

Notification and Evacuation

Key: Have an evacuation plan! Many people with disabilities rely on public transit, paratransit, and the vehicles of friends or family. These systems may not operate in an emergency.

Emergency notification methods are often haphazard and incomplete at reaching people with disabilities. Reports issued on television may not be captioned, and television and radio signals are not available in isolated and mountainous areas. In this context, systems such as Enhanced or Reverse 911 can be crucial in advising people about threats (see sidebar).

All emergency announcements must be accessible. Educate the television media about the need to caption emergency announcements on local television stations whenever a real-time emergency announcement is made. Give them lists of vendors available to perform this service.

Create multiple notification systems. When power goes out, contact may be lost with community agencies that have lists of people who might be more likely to need assistance with evacuation. A centralized dispatching system can help. Work with local organizations to create emergency phone trees. This way, neighbors can notify each other.

It is essential that individuals who require mobility aids be evacuated with those items. Evacuation planning must include vehicles that can transport wheelchairs and walkers.

Ensure that public safety personnel know how to communicate with and evacuate all types of people with disabilities. This is critical for people with communication disabilities. In an emergency, interpreters, captioning, and TTYs may be unavailable.


Enhanced/Reverse 911

Registering with Enhanced or Reverse 911 can save lives. These systems allow the operator to identify who a caller is, where they're located, and other information that may be necessary for first responders.

With these systems in place, public safety authorities can call everyone in an area to alert them to the need to evacuate. Dispatchers at a central location can produce a list of people who might have mobility issues or be unable to evacuate themselves. Note that in many cases, it is necessary for people with additional factors like disabilities to provide safety information in advance to the 911 system. Information about this service needs to be produced and circulated to prospective users.

People may have concerns about privacy; however, these databases are secure and only used by emergency personnel. Reverse 911 is also useful for seniors and families with young children.


The Role of Paratransit

Paratransit systems can take an important role in emergency evacuation. Not only are the vehicles equipped to help evacuate people with disabilities, but drivers know where their clients live.

Transit providers should be reimbursed for these services.


Shelter and Interim Services

Evaluate prospective shelter sites for accessibility for people with all types of disabilities and their service animals. Include restrooms, showers, access routes, and parking. Consult with health providers and community organizations ahead of time to determine which medical supplies shelters should stock. Be especially careful with new shelters. The more accessible these shelters and services are, the better they are for everybody.

Before an emergency occurs, educate shelter staff on disability etiquette and how to interact with people who have various disabilities. For instance, staff may not know that service animals are allowed.

In emergency shelters, communication access is crucial. Community organizations can compile and distribute lists of American Sign Language interpreters and referral services. Work with phone companies to make sure that every shelter site has at least one TTY and one phone that is at wheelchair height. Television sets used in shelters should be equipped for captioning.

Once shelters are in use, walkways and other features should be kept clear. Advise media outlets to keep from stringing cables across walkways unless the media have proper materials to prevent equipment from becoming obstacles

Individuals with disabilities are qualified to assist during emergencies. In fact, accessibility works a lot better when people with disabilities are involved. For this and other reasons, emergency systems should welcome volunteers with disabilities. Shelter managers should be aware of how to accommodate any disability-related needs of such volunteers, and to ensure that these volunteers are used when they offer to help.

Recovery

The process of returning home can be very complicated-- especially for people with disabilities. Backlogs in home repair can be critical if a person cannot access most of the local housing due to disability.

Enlist volunteer organizations to help individuals with disabilities who are unable to clean up their properties after a disaster.

If the community uses public transportation to take people who depend on transit back home, make sure arrangements are made for them to bring their belongings with them.

Post-emergency services should include mental health counseling.

Emergency rent controls need to be established in counties where disasters occur in order to ensure that increases in rent prices will not prevent people with disabilities from remaining in their communities.

Adapted by Danielle Dreilinger from an NSIP presentation.

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©The National Service Inclusion Project (NSIP) is a training and technical assistance provider on disability inclusion, under a cooperative agreement (#08TAHMA001) from Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). NSIP partners with the Association on University Centers on Disability, National Council on Independent Living, Association on Higher Education and Disability and National Down Syndrome Congress to build connections between disability organizations and all CNCS grantees, including national directs, to increase the participation of people with disabilities in national service.