Organizations And Emergency Preparedness for Individuals with Disabilities – Part II: How?

In last month’s edition of Access Press, we examined why emergency preparedness planning is critical for individuals with disabilities at […]

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In last month’s edition of Access Press, we examined why emergency preparedness planning is critical for individuals with disabilities at work and home. This time, we’ll take a look at strategies and tips that you may find helpful during your planning efforts. We talked with organizations that have already developed and tested their plans, including a special look inside the July 21, Hennepin County Government Center emergency evacuation drill.

Again in this article, we frequently reference points highlighted in the “Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities: An Interagency Seminar of Exchange for Federal Managers.” Once more, the report text and PDF documents are available via the Internet at Some of these points are as follows:

Obtain Support from the Highest Organizational Level. This will ensure that emergency planning becomes an organization-wide priority and commitment.

Ensure Everyone Has an Emergency Preparedness Role. Senior management should have oversight responsibility. Supervisors should be responsible for ensuring the safety of their team members. And, individuals should be responsible for their own safety. Meaning, individuals with disabilities should be responsible for providing relevant information to the people responsible for assisting them in the event of an emergency. As Dr. W. Roy Grizzard, Jr., the ODEP Assistant Secretary, stressed during a recent telephone interview, “[don’t do the planning] for us, without us.” Finally, the facility, emergency, and security personnel should have the responsibility of planning for emergency situations in general, as well as considering the needs of people with disabilities.

Build an Effective Emergency Planning Team. An effective team must have individuals with disabilities, emergency response and rescue personnel (i.e., at least one individual representing each security, fire, medical, and police teams), as well as building engineering staff. If an emergency were to occur, what is your building’s security team’s plan? When the fire, medical, or police arrive, what is their plan? What information do they need to know? What actions could be performed prior to their arrival to further insure everyone’s safety? How do the building’s elevator systems react when an alarm is triggered? Are there particular areas within the building that are more “insulated” against fire and smoke?

Identify Employees Who May Need Assistance. The planning team, working with human resource and supervisors, must identify employees who may need assistance during an emergency situation. Several symposium participants noted their experience where some people with disabilities were hesitant to identify themselves or their emergency needs. Who wants to imagine an emergency? Members of the planning team and management should perform outreach activities such as approaching individuals who they think may need assistance due to the following conditions and invite them to discuss any needs or ideas they may have:

Limitations that interfere with walking or using stairs,

Reduced stamina, fatigue, or tire easily,

Emotional, cognitive, thinking, or learning challenges,

Vision or hearing loss,

Temporary limitations (surgery, accidents, pregnancy), and/or

Use of technology assistance or medications.

Perhaps this outreach could occur during an initial emergency planning survey and continue being addressed individually by supervisors upon hire, transfer, or change in condition. Here again, individuals identified should be offered the opportunity to participate on the emergency planning team as well as to develop an individualized emergency plan. Remember Dr. Grizzard’s point of: “not for us, without us.”

Obtain and Share Ideas with Other Organizations. Talk with other tenants or residents within your building. What are they doing? Could you coordinate your efforts? Approach other organizations similar in size or located in similar buildings to find out about their plan; alarm, elevator, and communication systems; as well as evacuation equipment. How are they training their staff in the use of these systems and equipment? Part three of this series will identify organizations that may be able to serve as role models or provide guidance.

Don’t Rely on a “Buddy System!” “Buddy systems” fail if the “buddy” is out of the office or in another part of the building, and most likely, others nearby may not be able to help or may assume their help is not needed. Instead, use personal support networks. Working with the individual needing assistance, identify and recruit several individuals typically nearby with similar schedules or who attend meetings together. But, don’t “put all your eggs in one basket.” What if I need assistance, but happen to be working late or during the weekend? What if I happen to be in another part of the building? Have backup plans. Be prepared. Be flexible. Some potential policies that should also be developed include the following two points.

Determine Appropriate Emergency Elevator Use. During the symposium, Ms. Edwina Julliet, Co-Founder of the National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities, pointed out that historically we’ve received inconsistent messages regarding the use of elevators during an emergency. She stated that, in fact, some elevators are safe for emergency use. However, each elevator must be inspected to ensure it satisfies certain safety criteria, such as those below:

Installed in a smoke-proof hoist way constructed to a two-hour fire resistance and pressurized against smoke infiltration,

Leads to enclosed lobbies that are constructed with similar features to the hoist way, and,

A back up emergency power system is in place.

Designate “Areas of Rescue Assistance.” Such areas can be a refuge (i.e., are more “insulated” against fire and smoke) for individuals waiting until rescue workers arrive to safely assist them from a building. Such areas are described in the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG).

Plan for Emergency Communication. Designate “Floor Wardens” and “Zone Monitors” in each area who are equipped with two-way radios and are responsible for guaranteeing all areas are evacuated, including checking to see that individuals needing assistance have received it. Additional communication systems include the following: fire alarms, pagers, computer electronic notification systems (CENS), warden/stairway phones, PA systems, wireless communication devices (e.g., pagers, PDAs, cell phones), short-wave radios, internal and external emergency hotlines, intranets, and public website information.

Ensure Evacuation Equipment is Easily Accessible. For example, light-weight evacuation chairs, stretchers, or litters are located in places known to individuals who may need or use them. Perhaps storing them in clearly communicated and identified closets, which always remain unlocked. These closets should be near the stairway individuals requiring the equipment will use. Make sure that individuals who will both need these devices as well as those likely to be assisting have been instructed, and practiced, in the use of them. Furthermore, make sure the individuals who will need these devices are also capable of explaining the proper use of each device in the event training “under fire” needs to occur.

Designate an Emergency Situation Room. Such a room should be equipped with telephones and other equipment required to implement your communication plan. In addition, it should have windows facing a main street, or even key street corner, so it can be clearly and easily identified by a large “HELP HERE” sign.

Stress Communication of the Plan. Ensure emergency plans are reviewed during all employee orientation sessions. Furthermore, provide a copy of the emergency policies and procedures to each employee, or at the very least, have copies clearly visible in several strategic locations on each floor throughout the building. Some organizations have even provided laminated emergency quick reference cards that clearly indicate evacuation routes and devices, areas of rescue assistance, communication equipment, as well as outside meeting locations.

PLI, PLI, PLI! PLI: Practice, Learn, Improve! This was probably the most intensely stressed element: practice regularly so that it becomes natural, followed by discussions of what worked and what didn’t, then figuring out how to overcome challenges encountered, and finally improving. Also, make sure that your plan remains up-to-date. Does your plan reflect current local security, police, fire, and medical response plans? Has any area experienced recent reorganization or remodeling? Is the evacuation and communication equipment where it should be? Are key emergency response team members still within the area they’re responsible for? Practice “walkthrough drills”, which allow participants to discuss possible difficulties and slowly practice evacuation techniques. For example, people might practice the actual use of an evacuation chair. Additionally, “scheduled drills” provide an excellent opportunity to practice evacuating in a slow and controlled environment, often with local security, police, fire, and medical teams present.

And finally, it is critical that “unannounced drills” occur only after scheduled drills so that any identified issues have been resolved, thus assuring people do not “practice” incorrectly.

Remember: Be Prepared B Be Flexible!

Be sure to check out the next edition of Access Press for resources that may help you develop, evaluate, and implement your plan. These resources may include sample plans, guidebooks, consultants, trainers, equipment, supplies, and so on. If you are aware of any such resources, please let me know. You can contact me by calling 952-401-9808 or e-mailing [email protected] Thanks!

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