By E.C. Barrett
ITHACA – When a disaster happens, do you know what you’ll need to be self-sufficient for 72 hours, how to contact separated family members, where to seek shelter, and what to do with your pet or if you run out of medication?
These basic questions of emergency preparedness apply to everyone, but because they can be more complicated for people with disabilities, the People with Disabilities in Disaster Planning task force, a joint venture of the Finger Lakes Independence Center and the Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response, has been working for the better part of the last decade to identify the needs and gaps in resources available to people with disabilities.
“The two main projects we’re working on right now are an educational component around emergency preparedness and people with disabilities, and trying to get the whole emergency plan of Tompkins County more inclusive of people with disabilities,” said task force co-chair Jeff Boles. “Most county emergency plans mention people with disabilities in an annex in the end. We want people with disabilities mentioned on every page and throughout the plan.”
The bulk of the work for task force co-chair and Assistant Director of Emergency Response Beth Harrington is assessing the resources of various agencies, identifying ADA compliant shelters, locating reliable sources of medical equipment that can be accessed at any time, and ensuring there are necessary support staff such as sign language interpreters and mental health counselors available in an emergency.
“When we had the flooding in Newfield a few years ago, we asked the Red Cross to go out and open the school as a shelter,” said Harrington. “We thought we might have to evacuate a mobile home park where there were people with mobility issues, so we worked to make sure we had what we needed in place at the school. Thankfully we didn’t have to evacuate but we had the plan in place because of the work of the task force.”
This past Saturday, September 17, the task force asked people who are deaf or hard of hearing for input about their situation and what they would require in an emergency as part of an on-going series of disability-specific focus groups.
Harrington described this focus group, and the two that previously took place addressing mobility and mental health issues, as an important opportunity to educate individuals in emergency preparedness as well as educate the emergency response community on how to support people with disabilities.
Boles and Harrington said people often do not develop an emergency plan because they assume a first responder will arrive to help them but the size and scale of a disaster might mean that help is a long time coming. “In the town of Caroline, on any given day maybe we can get 40 first responders together; that’s one first responder for every 80 residents. If there is a major disaster it is going to take those forty people a long time to get to everyone in Caroline,” said Harrington.
“The fact is, as soon as an emergency happens – whether it’s an electrical outage or a storm or some other emergency – a first responder is not going to be there right away to carry you to safety so you need to be prepared and have a plan,” said Boles. “Yes, someone will be there eventually but you need to plan for your safety until someone can get there. For instance, if you have an electric wheelchair, you need to make sure your back-up is charged at all times because if the electricity cuts out and your primary battery runs out, you may not be able to get around.”
Harrington advocates for localized disaster planning that includes talking to neighbors about their specific needs and how to offer each other support in case of an emergency. She also encourages people with medical equipment needs to speak with their local fire department and let them know that they might need oxygen in the event of an emergency, for example. “Preparedness is everybody’s responsibility,” Harrington said. “If you have friends or relatives in a nursing home or group home, ask what kind of preparedness is being planned at those facilities. Ask them what’s going to happen if they have to evacuate. Any major disaster is chaos; we’re trying to minimize that chaos.”
For more information about the work of the task force and to submit input if you’ve missed their previous focus groups, contact Boles at (607) 272-2433 ext. 217 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Harrington at (607) 257-3888.