By ERICA HALL
With the continual-if-unpredictable natural and man-made disasters in the United States and abroad, it seems like first-responders would follow national guidelines for responding effectively to people with special needs.
Surprisingly, that's not the case.
Most jurisdictions are working toward compliance with the emergency response standards set out in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) created by the Department of Homeland Security in September 2004. All federal agencies have adopted the system, and federal preparedness assistance funding for state and local emergency response agencies is contingent upon them adopting the standards, too.
South King County Fire and Rescue is compliant with NIMS, said spokeswoman Kendra Kay, which ensures all agencies nationwide are on the same page when responding to a variety of events, from typical house fires to widespread disasters like earthquakes, floods or acts of terrorism.
But Kay noted the national system doesn't include emergency response standards specific to people with special needs" the elderly, those who can't see or hear, those who have life-sustaining equipment they rely on, or who have limited mobility. Furthermore, there isn't anything in NIMS that spells out how to open and organize incident command centers or shelters that consider the people with disabilities.
But there is an organization that has started evaluating emergency responders to see how well they respond to the needs of senior citizens, the medically fragile and those with disabilities.
The National Organization on Disability (NOD), which was created in the aftermath of the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks, recently released its special needs assessment report on Hurricane Katrina response. NOD found shortcomings in a variety of areas" availability of shelter staff trained in American Sign Language, lack of pre-arranged accessible shelter spaces, unwillingness to take the advice or accept the assistance of organizations that work with the disabled or elderly, and failure to provide ongoing disaster updates or information in formats accessible to the blind or deaf.
In addition, many shelters or response organizations lacked the administrative infrastructure to involve the elderly or disabled in their own disaster response, NOD reported. In some cases, shelter staff separated from their families people with special needs who could have been easily integrated into the general population of the shelter.
NOD's recommendations for better response, along with ideas generated by emergency-response agencies and advocates for people with special needs, are beginning to form a foundation for a national special needs emergency response plan.
Still, since that plan doesn't exist today, preparation at the local level is key, and Des Moines Police Chief Roger Baker said local disaster-response officials are wise to begin talking about the issue now.
"This is something that really does need to be dealt with. Emergency services should be able to provide service to everyone. What if you can't dial 9-1-1? What if you can't walk out? If I don't know you're there and if we have a major incident like" Hurricane Katrina, Baker said, his voice trailing off.
Days before Katrina made landfall, he said, police in the Gulf Coast drove through neighborhoods, telling people to leave, but without knowing anything about who might have a physical disability.
"People by themselves couldn't make themselves known," Baker said. "Somebody needs to sit down and take a look at this. Now's the time. If we're going to make lemonade, it's to be prepared."
Identification is one of the primary concerns facing first-responders. Short of assisted living facilities and nursing homes, police and firefighters today have no idea who in their communities is blind or deaf, or has a mental or mobility limitation.
It's not obvious who has a disability" especially if it the condition isn't advertised.
"People with disabilities tend to be insular," said Gaylen Floy, president of the South King Council of the Blind. "People are resistant. Getting out to a simple lunch is like pulling hen's teeth."
There are lots of reasons people are reluctant to let their neighbors know they're disabled, not least of which is a concern for personal safety and security, she said. But that doesn't negate the need to find people with disabilities.
"It's important for police to know about us," Floy said. "It's a dilemma."
In early discussions, some first-responders suggested disabled people put an identifying sticker on their homes so firefighters would know in the event of an emergency that resident might need extra help. The idea didn't get very far.
"Some people strongly objected because then criminals would know," Floy said. "There are some people who would not want to be any part of this at all."
In addition, a sticker on a door or window would be useless if the person was out visiting friends or running errands.
Timothy Doyle, public education program manager for King County Emergency Services, which includes the Citizen Corps program, suggested a lapel pin or button of some sort that would indicate a person needs a particular kind of assistance. That also would be effective for individuals away from home.
Other people have suggested creating an overarching organization with which disabled people could register, similar to the Washington Council of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, which keep member databases. If an emergency was predicted in their region or town, local first-responders would be notified.
But that idea faltered, too.
First off, it would be effective only for predictable emergencies.
Second, it might compromise the privacy and security of the subscribers. In addition, the system only would work if disabled people were diligent about updating their information whenever they moved or their circumstances changed, and staff on the organization's side would have to update and maintain the database regularly.
Baker said new technology might be the key. For example, technology exists that would enable elderly or disabled cell phone subscribers to enroll in an additional service that would allow emergency response volunteers to call them wherever they are to warn of an impending disaster and make sure they have a place to go.
In addition, cell phones today can be prioritized, so calls from special needs subscribers could get through jammed cell phone signals first. They could even be satellite connected, Baker said, to ensure the most vulnerable people were able to notify someone of his or her disability and need for assistance.
Baker also noted the Legislature could create a new three-digit number, like 9-1-1, exclusively for people with special needs.
"In today's world, it's impossible for me to believe that if people want to be contacted we can't do it," he said. "The programs are written. Computers exist."
Training and preparation
While first responders work through the details of establishing national guidelines for helping people with special needs, some advocates for people with special needs have said it's important they include the elderly and disabled as active participants in the response" to set new standards with them, not about them.
People with disabilities need different kinds of assistance or communications, experts said, but in some ways, they can be better equipped to handle the rigors of dealing with a disaster.
"A person in a wheelchair is perfect for incident manager or a scribe or secretary. They're great decisionmakers," Doyle said. "A wheelchair itself will rip off a door if it's electric. Those things are strong.
"We all have abilities and disabilities," he added. "It has to do with how we use our environment."
Blindness, for example, is considered a disability, but blind people don't need light to navigate an environment, Doyle pointed out. That means a blind person might be a better choice for navigating a dark area, like a building without electricity, than someone who needs light to get around.
It's just that kind of thinking and expertise that will be invaluable for the people who will be in charge of setting up incident command centers, regional and neighborhood response teams, shelters and workplace safety plans.
Yang Su Cho, assistive technology counselor for the Department of Services for the Blind in Seattle, spent last summer drafting a training manual for the trainers who will be teaching police and firefighters in King County and, eventually, across the country.
The manual includes ways to incorporate disabled people or seniors into the disaster response training classes and, by extension, into real-life disaster response.
"We wanted to make sure (first responders) understand the needs of people with all kinds of disabilities," Cho said. "The document includes information on what trainers have to provide for their trainees so they can help visually impaired people or people with other disabilities."
The manual hasn't been published yet, Cho said, but it was selected to be used as a national standard when it is.
Meanwhile, there's nothing like being prepared, said Greg Vause, the Federal Way Police Department's jail coordinator and an instructor in the city's Certified Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and Neighborhood Emergency Teams (NET) programs.
"We've been telling people for years now to be prepared," he said. "Come to NET stuff. Come to CERT stuff. There's a job for everybody. We can always use people and get people involved."
Vause said it's critical for special needs people to find a way to introduce themselves to their neighbors.
"Talk to a neighbor," he said. "Say, ˜Hey, I have X, Y, Z; if something happens, could you check on me?'
"You need to know who your neighbors are. When something really major happens, you're on your own for 72 hours."
Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, email@example.com