This is the final article in the investigative series on Emergency Management Planning (EMP). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), from an administrative level, provides a very efficient and cost effective procedure guide and resource directory for local governments. However, our investigations, coupled with recent natural disasters, suggest that something is amiss.
Dana Alexon is Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator for the West Metro Fire-Rescue District. Formed in 1998, through a joint agreement between Crystal and New Hope, the District has the additional responsibility of Emergency Management Planning (EMP).
In an interview, Alexon discusses the challenges of EMP for a diverse population which includes people with disabilities.
Q: What are some of the responsibilities and challenges of your position?
A: Rarely is Emergency Management a person’s sole job. My primary job is fire chief for two municipalities. I also function as the Emergency Management Coordinator for both cities. We, in emergency management, feel that there should be a higher focus on staffing—funding for more people to do the work that’s needed.
There are competing interests for government funds at a municipal and county level. Taxation is one option, but people are writing to their legislators saying, “This is enough. No more tax increases.” We need funding alternatives. People on fixed incomes—I think in many cases the disability community is in that boat—do not have the opportunities to grow their income to be able to support tax increases. Clearly, there is a whole lot more demand than there is supply when it comes to funding.
Q: What do you consider the responsibility of citizens in emergency management planning?
A: Citizens have an obligation to prepare themselves. In a regional disaster we [emergency responders] cannot call on mutual aid networks to assist us. This means we have to be totally self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. Under these circumstances, we cannot get to everybody in the community. This is where it’s important for citizens to be prepared.
Q: What can citizens do to be prepared?
A: People need to get back into being prepared to help each other’s out. This can ease the burden on emergency responders, especially during a regional disaster. It takes about three days for state and federal authorities to get resources to an area. People need to have a 72-hour supply of food, water, batteries, first aid and medical supplies, hygiene supplies, a fire extinguisher, and other essentials.
Q: Have you conducted a table topic exercise or simulation involving people with disabilities or a representative thereof?
A: When we put together a table topic exercise, we typically have to limit what it is that we’re testing in any given exercise. The focus, as well as the funding, tends to be more global. In 2003 we had a table topic exercise for Minnesota Masonic Home North Ridge. [This is an assistive living community for seniors.] In this exercise we focused on identifying what some of the challenges are going to be.
Also, some of the information we discuss in these exercises is highly sensitive. Take, for example, designated shelters. We can’t risk making them a target. [If the location of designated shelters became public information, it increases the risk of those shelters being attacked by terrorists.]
Q: With these limitations, how can you respond to the special needs of people with disabilities?
A: I agree with you that it is important for emergency responders to have an idea of how we are going to handle a situation. We need to know what challenges may be presented. In these situations, we depend a lot on the staff at these facilities to be a tremendous assistance to responders. We simply do not have the funding or staff for this level of expertise.
Q: What about shelters and transportation? Are the workers assigned to these sites knowledgeable about disabilities?
A: Municipal staff relies on the Red Cross to staff and operate shelters. There, too, they have the expertise and experience to run and manage these shelters. Most municipalities do not.
Q: What happens if a person who is blind arrives at a shelter with a guide dog? Will they be allowed to enter?
A: Red Cross determines who can or cannot enter a particular shelter. They may designate one shelter for people who are allergic to animals. In this situation, a person with a service animal would be transported to another shelter where they are accepted.
Q: You mentioned transportation. Who provides this?
A: In localized emergencies we are connected with the school districts and Metro Transit. There again, we have to rely upon them to follow regulations and to have the knowledge and expertise to do their jobs.
Q: How do you communicate emergency preparedness planning to people with disabilities in general and for those with hearing, vision, cognitive and other communications challenges?
A: One thing we haven’t thought about is using media that is specially geared, such as Access Press, to reach the disability community. This is an avenue we need to consider from the emergency management side. We also need to get fire safety and crime safety information to this group.
We would have to depend on one of the organizations that work in the areas of disabilities to take some of our publications and translate them into formats that would be readily usable for people with vision and other types of impairments. Ideally, this would occur at a higher government level so as to reach more people with disabilities.
Q: In closing, is there anything people with disabilities can do to improve the disability access or funding?
A: Working with your elected representatives at all levels is important to making this happen. There is a community of committed people at the local and the state level. Some of these people are highly specialized—security professionals, industrial professionals.
At a local level, we can only do as much as we have funding to do. The more citizens are prepared and involved in Emergency Management Planning, the better it is for everyone.
In closing this series on EMP, certain facts are ominously clear.
Local emergency management coordinators have other responsibilities that require time, resources and planning. Volunteer fire fighters staff fire departments in some municipalities. Positions may be part-time or full-time with multiple responsibilities.
Local governments can apply for federal funding to cover the cost of table topic exercises, critical incident simulations, and emergency response equipment. However, some municipalities must rely on already burdened staff to complete grant applications. These applications are lengthy and require professionals who know the correct terminology to apply.
Although efforts are being made to improve emergency response for people with disabilities, change takes time. The recent scope of failures in regional disasters suggests major failures in responding to citizens in general. Beyond this, studies are being conducted on disaster mortality rates for people with disabilities relative to the overall population in a disaster area.
In the event of a disaster occurring here, self-help initiatives seem the best option for ensuring one’s safety.