Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities

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by Camel City Dispatch

By Bryan Dooley


emergency preparedness
emergency preparedness

Twenty-five years ago, two major weather events affected Winston-Salem and the surrounding areas. First came a tornado, which left 75,000 houses and businesses without power in the wake of the storm, and brought tornadoes and high winds to Forsyth County on May 5, 1989, according to media accounts at time.

Then came hurricane Hugo, which came inland in South Carolina near Charleston, and was one of the most destructive in United States history. Unlike typical hurricanes, it affected the Piedmont and North Carolina’s mountains. Given a recent article on the initiative to improve emergency response related to people with disabilities, we wanted to give provide readers some tips from local emergency responders.
“In my opinion, there are two ways to prepare – prepare with or prepare for,” said Ken Shaw, Emergency Preparedness Manager for Novant Health and appointee to the Forsyth Emergency Management Advisory Council.

“The National Organization on Disabilities (NOD) did a study in 2005, after Katrina and found that planning for populations, regardless of the different groups within that population, results in the most vulnerable people facing a heightened degree of danger. That means the more we prepare with the identified groups, resisting the urge to plan for them without actively engaging them and their organizations, the more empowered and resilient they are.”
Rick Schou, Red Cross Regional Disaster Officer, reinforces the importance of including people with disabilities in the planning of their care.
“Planning agencies need to include local disability rights advocacy groups for assistance in determining functional and access needs planning during a disaster,” said Schou. “These groups will help ensure that planning is comprehensive with regards to the various types of disabilities for consideration, and usually have many resources that primary response agencies don’t have.”
One of the first recommendations local responders offer is to begin a conversation regarding the person with disabilities’ unique needs in an emergency.
Ann Voss, Outgoing Chair, Emergency Management Advisory Council, explains why this should be the first step in preparing prior to an actual emergency.
“While everyone should have a family or individual emergency plan, those with disabilities really need one so that the questions of how to meet their needs aren’t being asked for the first time in the middle of a crisis,” Voss said.

Local disability professionals bolstered her message about maintaining independence.

Daniel Moody, independent living specialist at the Adaptables Center for Independent Living, Inc., a Winston Salem based disability rights organization, shared his advice for people with disabilities who experience any type of emergency.

“My biggest tip is to do as much for yourself as possible,” said Moody. “Prepare a list of your medications. Have contacts, both local and non-local. Be firm in what you need, do not let other people tell you. Know where to go and have a safe meeting place.”

Executive Director of the Adaptables, Mark Steele, echoes Moody’s call for self-reliance.

“Take it upon yourself to educate your local first responders regarding your needs,” said Steele. “Contact and go by your local fire station, to introduce yourself before an emergency happens. Don’t assume that the responders will automatically know how to handle your disability.”
Steele continued, “There are a lot of aspects of disabilities that they probably aren’t familiar with. That’s where you come in as an advocate for yourself.”

Voss provided a summarized list of steps people with disabilities can use to advocate for themselves.

“Self-advocacy is one of the best tools that people with disabilities can use,” Voss said. “Get the notes on your address with the emergency services, identify where in the home the person with disabilities sleeps, what their needs are, wear medical assist tags and keep an ‘ICE’ (In Case of Emergency) number in your cell phone, the contact that you would want emergency personnel to call, if you are found incapacitated, as they have training to look for such entries.”

Leigha Cordell, the Logistic Officer with the Winston Salem Office of Emergency
Management, provided an easy checklist for people with disabilities in emergencies:

Create a personal support network. Make a list of family, friends, and others who will be part of your plan if and when something happens. Share with them what needs to take place and how you will need assistance during an emergency. Make sure that everyone in your network knows how you plan to exit your living facility, school or workplace and where you plan to go in the event of a disaster. Make sure that someone in your personal network has an extra key to your home and knows where you keep your emergency supplies. Teach them to use all of your life saving equipment and how to administer the various medications. Inform your Employer and co-workers about the assistance that you will need in an emergency, such as if you will need to be lifted or carried away. If you are deaf or hard of hearing, discuss ways that you need to be alerted if something happens.
Develop a family communications plan: Your family may not be together during a disaster, so discuss how you will communicate with each other in different situations. Consider a plan where each family member calls, sends a text message or emails the same friend or relative in the event of an emergency. Have a contact person outside of your immediate area that shouldn’t be effected during an emergency in your area. If you are in North Carolina, maybe your contact person should be in Florida or California or some other distant area that most likely wouldn’t be affected by your local emergency.

The American Red Cross, along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has developed a booklet for people with disabilities who experience an emergency. Schou explains why the Red Cross felt it was necessary.

According to Schou, in the past shelters had two different plans, one for the general population and one for those with disabilities. However, this made people with disabilities often feel like outcasts. The booklet helps people with disabilities be active participants in their own disaster planning.

There are many additional sources for information regarding emergencies locally. Three websites recommended by local emergency professionals are:

HERE, HERE, or locally you can visit HERE.

The Red Cross booklet can be found HERE .



Bryan Dooley is a graduate of Guilford College, where while earning a degree in History, he wrote for the The Guilfordian as a Staff Writer from 2011 to 2013, a Senior Writer from 2012 to 2013, and worked as a Diversity Coordinator. He now is a journalist and columnist with CCD. Bryan, who himself has cerebral palsy, is also an advocate for people with disabilities.

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