By Brian Lake

Usually when National Preparedness Month rolls around in September, you’ll find me talking to emergency managers, first responders, disability service providers, my friends, my girlfriend and the guy I met in the park while walking my dog about inclusive emergency preparedness for disability communities. This year is no different.

It’s a critically important topic–we have to talk about it. Ongoing dialogue and conversations between emergency management and disability communities must occur, because without them, as the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

This year has had two very significant milestones: the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. One marks how far we have come; the other marks how far we still have to go.

Hurricane Katrina was a huge wakeup call for the emergency management community, showing that deficiencies continue to exist within the emergency management lifecycle relating to a fairly significant and diverse population. We have all heard the gut-wrenching, heart breaking stories about how, due to a lack of planning, the needs of a sizeable population were unmet in the preparedness, response and recovery stages of that disaster. A great deal of finger pointing occurred for a long time, and the shortfalls in planning and preparedness prior to Hurricane Katrina have been analyzed, discussed and dissected on both macro and micro levels.

In part, as a result of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has made immense strides to integrate the issues of persons with disabilities into its overall infrastructure. Craig Fugate was tapped to lead the agency in these critical years, and Marcie Roth has created the new Office of Disability Integration and Coordination; both are extraordinarily committed and talented individuals who are staunch advocates of inclusive emergency preparedness and response. The agency has also started to hire Disability Integration Specialists in all ten of the FEMA regions.

Still, all disasters are local, and FEMA is only part of a larger team, which consists of state and local emergency management and first responders. FEMA can produce guidance, documentation, frameworks, etc., but the fact remains that there is no “gold standard” best practice on how integrating disability concerns should occur in communities. In the end, the needs and challenges in Tacoma, Washington are different than those found in Fort Myers, Florida. Inclusive emergency preparedness is about finding what works in your community and developing collaborative relationships between emergency management and disability communities.

There have been some fantastic programs that have occurred throughout the nation integrating disability issues and consumers into the emergency management infrastructure. These communities have taken great strides in understanding the nuances of preparing, responding, evacuating and sheltering persons with disabilities during times of emergencies. Most of these programs have occurred because someone (from either the disability or emergency management community) decided to step outside of their constituency and comfort zone and reach out and try to understand, or assist in understanding, how to be inclusive in emergency preparedness and response.

Disability Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)

In Mercer County, New Jersey, a group of individuals with mobility disabilities participated in a nine week CERT training course with the Office of Emergency Management and formed their own CERT team. The CERT training program teaches individuals in the community how to check on neighbors, help clear debris, help deliver aid/food/water and assist as volunteers before and after disasters. In Houston, Texas there is an all Deaf CERT team. Not only are these disability CERT teams well connected within their communities, but by participating in this training, they help local emergency managers understand the specific needs of the disability constituency.

Accessible Communications

In Blackhawk County, Iowa, their local 911 center is the first in the nation that can receive 911 calls via text message. This was a huge step forward for providing access to emergency services for those with voice or hearing impairments. Realizing that many Deaf consumers no longer use TTYs, the county emergency management agency transitioned the 911 call center to an IP-based system and worked diligently with a local cell phone carrier to allow the agency to accept 911 text messages.

Collaborative Partnerships

In the state of Arizona, there is a unique relationship between the Arizona Division of Emergency Management (AZDEM) and the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council (AZSILC). AZSILC recruits consumers with disabilities to participate in statewide disaster response training exercises. These training exercises give emergency managers a clearer understanding of the needs of individuals with disabilities and allow them to correct mistakes, so they do not occur in future real-life disasters. In 2011, the AZDEM and the AZSILC will hold a two day joint training seminar that focuses on inclusive emergency preparedness educational sessions, table top training scenarios and technology/apparatus demonstrations.

This is just a sampling of programs that represent what I like to call “good ideas” in changing the direction of the conversation and creating grass-roots, community-based solutions to disability integration that work and work well. There are new programs being developed all the time with support from FEMA, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other federal, state and local agencies looking to ensure that persons with functional needs are afforded the same opportunities to prepare, respond and recover from any given emergency. Often, the most successful programs have started when someone from the disability community picked up the phone and called his or her local emergency management agency and said, “Let me help you understand our needs.”

The problems that continue to hamper inclusive emergency preparedness seem complex, but often the solutions are much simpler than they appear. Through awareness, education and pragmatic dialogue, inroads can be made to find these much needed solutions. Pick up the phone, go have coffee, show up at a meeting. Collaboration always trumps confrontation. Together we can move our nation closer towards inclusive emergency preparedness for all citizens.

Brian Lake is the president and founder of enableUS, which produces educational conferences and seminars surrounding inclusive emergency preparedness.

This piece was originally posted at the Department of Labor’s blog.