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Last week the American National Standards Institute’s Homeland Security Standards Panel (ANSI-HSSP) released a sobering, frustrating and frankly embarrassing report that should give pause to emergency managers, public safety personnel and for that matter all Americans.  The report, Emergency Preparedness for Persons with Disabilities and Special Needs, chronicles the findings of a two-day workshop that occurred February 3-4, 2009, at Gallaudet University.

Attended by well over a hundred persons from the public and private sectors, the two-day workshop was an eye-opening experience that showed the challenges, frustrations and enormous gaps that still remain in this country when it comes to addressing the needs of persons with disabilities and special needs.  I should know – I was in attendance at the workshop and left the two-day experience moved but extremely frustrated by what I learned.

It is a fact that an overwhelming number of Americans are able to respond to emergency situations because of the effective notification systems in place, whether it is weather bulletin broadcasted on the TV or radio; a fire alarm ringing in a building; or information posted at an evacuation shelter.  In short, we have it made.

However, if you are blind, hearing impaired or unable to physically move without some type of assistance, responding to an emergency is by no means easy and the notification systems described above offer little assistance.  Your ability to react and respond to challenges is impeded not just by physical limitations but also by means well beyond your control.

Consider the following facts:

•    Only the State of Texas provides a 24-7, 365 means (that is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act) of notifying deaf and hearing impaired persons of approaching dangers.

•    All of us at one point or another have seen evacuation chairs in building stairwells.  These are placed there to allow for persons either in wheelchairs or with other mobility impairments to be able to get out of a building with the assistance of one or two other persons.  Did you know that there are ABSOLUTELY NO STANDARDS to the design or operation of these chairs?  If you had to, would you know how to even assemble or operate one during an emergency?  Could you do it as persons were trying to get down the stairwell to leave the building?

At the Gallaudet workshop, several persons in wheelchairs recounted their experiences in these devices and the verdict was an overwhelming ‘thumbs down’ as to their ease of use and their ability to function as advertised.  Even more stunning was the fact that all of the mobility-impaired persons I spoke with at the workshop (and even those persons not in attendance) said that there was no way they would be strapped into one of those devices given their previous harrowing experiences.  They all recounted the pain of being thrashed around and the injuries they suffered going down the stairs – not to mention their fear of the device giving out from under them or being left to fall helplessly down the stairs as persons were evacuating the building.

•    When it comes to emergency preparedness exercises, persons with disabilities and special needs are often forgotten about or not included.  As a result, when a real emergency occurs, some (certainly not all) first responders and building evacuation personnel don’t know what to do with those who might need extra assistance.

•    One of the workshop’s most disturbing findings was that our disabilities population is growing.  Every American at some point will have some sort of disability because of either an injury or surgery that temporarily impairs their mobility, or permanently changes their life as a result of a serious injury, failing health or advanced age.  It is no longer a question of “if” you become disabled; now it’s just a question of “when.”

There are other disturbing facts that the Workshop and Report chronicle but overall its message is clear: nearly 20 years after the passage of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), we remain a nation woefully unengaged and not pro-active enough in providing some of our most vulnerable citizens with the basic essentials they need to respond to emergencies – the essentials a majority of Americans take for granted.

By offering this criticism, I do not mean to undercut or denigrate the tremendous leadership and progress that has been made by many emergency managers and first responders in the public and private sectors on these issues.  Their efforts are reason for praise and recognition, but much more has to be done to improve accessibility for and inclusion of the disabled and special needs populations in emergency preparedness and response efforts.

ANSI-HSSP’s report puts the sobering facts on the table.

It’s up to us as a citizenry to look at the facts as if we were looking at our own reflection in a mirror and recognize that we all have a responsibility not to leave anyone behind.

That’s not just an American civil right – it’s a human right.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More
  • Mom

    Great article, Rich. No one ever thinks of the diabled until one has to deal with it. Everyone should be made to take a course on assembling a wheelchair and how to get a disabled person out of a building. I think of your Grandfather getting out of that fire, by sliding down the 3 flights of stairs to get out of the building. He helped his neighbors before getting himself out of the building. I wonder how he did it when he couldn’t walk without the walker or cart. Miracles did happen that day with the help of the firemen ordering them out. Good work!