Advice from the experts: Preparing for disasters: Information for people with disabilities

Q&A with Danielle Bailey, MPH, research assistant for the Oregon Office on Disability and Health

Disasters can strike at any time, and while everyone needs to be prepared, people with disabilities often require special equipment and preparations. In this interview, Danielle Bailey, MPH, a research assistant for the Oregon Office on Disability and Health, provides the Get Ready campaign with some preparedness tips that people with disabilities can use to protect themselves and their families.

We talk a lot about the importance of emergency preparedness. Does preparedness vary for people with disabilities?

Every individual needs to take the basic steps in emergency planning, such as identifying what types of emergencies can happen in your area, developing communication and evacuation plans and putting together emergency kits. However, achieving this level of preparedness varies greatly for a person with a disability because of the level of attention and planning required to address their specific needs.

Danielle Bailey headshotWhen thinking about evacuation and exit routes out of your home or place of work, (which) could be on the third floor, a power wheelchair user’s plan will differ from someone in the general population. The level of detail may include things such as having a backup manual chair, having a battery-charging plan for your chair, identifying safe places if evacuation is not possible, identifying all the accessible exit routes and ensuring those exit routes are free of clutter or large objects that could fall and block the path of travel, and then identifying support people. You want to identify co-workers, neighbors, friends or people at home who will (help) ensure your safety in an emergency.

Different people have different disabilities. If you have a disability such as in mobility, vision, speech, hearing or a mental or emotional disability, what are some preparedness tips that can keep you safe?
No matter the disability, a best practice is to sit down with someone who knows them well. I would suggest a spouse, family member, friend (or) care provider, and based on your lowest anticipated level of functioning, decide what activities you are able to do for yourself and what help you may need before, during and after an emergency.

Think about personal care, think about any adaptive equipment you would use, any special diet, what you eat, any type of battery-powered equipment, transportation — how are you running errands, how do you get to places you need to go — medications and medical supplies, durable medical equipment. And then (think about) evacuation — things like service animals — and communication.
Another tip is really just getting local: Do you know your neighbors? Do your local fire and rescue know who you are? Do you have, in your community, a volunteer emergency registry? And have you had a discussion with your primary care physician specifically around emergency planning?

Some communities have neighborhood emergency teams. I do think it’s good for individuals with disabilities to get involved with those groups because, in turn, you’re teaching others how to address people with disabilities as well.

Disaster supply kits include some basic items, but what additional items might go into the disaster supply kits of people with disabilities?
When we talk about disaster kits, everybody has to remember that there are two types everyone should have. First, the 72-hour kit — the one that you would use if you were forced to shelter at home — and the other type of kit everyone should have is what we refer to as a grab-and-go kit with the items that you can store easily in a bag or backpack that you can quickly grab and generally it provides supplies for one person for a 24-hour period. The No. 1 rule is the kit needs to be very, very specific to their needs.

Another example: For individuals who can only drink out of a straw, include straws in your bag. Or if you use a manual wheelchair, you may want to think about having some type of hand protection, such as leather gloves. Think about backup batteries for hearing aids, extra canes, and of course you need to have a plan around your medication and ensure you have copies of current prescriptions. If possible, at least have a seven-day supply of medication.

Another good rule of thumb is that basically you want to store your supplies or your grab-and-go bag in a very accessible spot, not on the top shelf of a closet, but possibly by your bed or in an exit route. Also, you need to have your grab-and-go bags where you spend a significant amount of time, so you should have one at your home, school, work, your community inclusion program and even in your car.

If you have a disability and you’re told to evacuate, how can you be sure a shelter will meet your specific needs?
There are no guarantees that a shelter will be accessible to all your needs. Get involved beforehand, work with your local disability groups, your county emergency management planners and the (American) Red Cross.

What should you do if a caregiver or family member cannot get to you because roads are blocks or the disaster has affected them as well?
Again, this is where the importance of building support groups is crucial. You want to build support groups with as many individuals as possible where you spend the most time.

Many disabled people rely on equipment that requires electricity to operate such as wheelchairs and life support equipment. How can you plan ahead to accommodate power outages?
What I recommend folks do first is register with your local utility company. Many power utility companies keep a list of names of people dependent on powered life-support systems, and they can tag your meters. In some instances, they may be able to prioritize by the time length the person is able to tolerate being off of a life-support system. Again, never count on your power being quickly restored. Utility personnel may not be able to get to you depending on the nature of the disaster.

Also, you want to think about alternate power sources. Discuss with your equipment vendor alternative power sources that can provide you with support for up to five to seven days. See if you can use a generator. If so, what type of generator? Can you possibly manually operate the equipment? Can your equipment be powered from a vehicle battery, and if that’s the case do you have the necessary hardware for that particular hookup? For oxygen users, check with your physician. You may be able to use what’s called a “reduced flow rate” in the event of a disaster to prolong the life of your system. I think a really good practice is to record the reduced flow number on your equipment so that you or your support group can easily refer to that. No matter what your system, you need to remember to conduct regular backup tests for these systems. Lastly, inform your personal support network and let them know how to operate and safely move your equipment if necessary. A best practice is to label your equipment (and) add instruction cards.

If you’re deaf and you use telecommunication relay services, what are some backup options if relay services fail?
There’s dialing 711, which is a nationwide system. And then there is CapTel, which is a caption telephone system. There’s also Internet-based relays through computer, text, pager, PDA systems and then video relay services through broadband.

Another backup plan is to make a list of family, friends, co-workers, personal attendants, service providers and anybody else who can be a part of your plan. Include people both in and outside of your immediate neighborhood or community, like a relative in another state, and communicate with these people and ask them to be part of your support network. And then, ultimately, what you want to do is create a communication plan. Make sure you and your support network share contact information and alternate ways to communicate. Your telecommunication relay system may not work so think of other strategies.

Many people with disabilities have a service dog. Can you share some tips on how to include service animals in your emergency and preparedness plans?
The first thing to know is that there is a difference between pets and service animals, and how they’ll be treated in an emergency situation. Service animals, if well-behaved, will be allowed into emergency shelters. However, if you have a pet or a companion animal, they may not.

Have an updated ID and license for your pet or service animal. You want to put together an animal care plan just in case you are separated from your service animal. Do you have someone else identified to take care of your pet? Beforehand, identify emergency animal shelters and talk to your vet about this. Be prepared for your animal to behave differently. You don’t know how they’re going to react in an emergency. They may become frightened, so be sure you have a leash or harness or some way to confine them if need be. And if at all possible, be prepared to navigate the environment without them. Think about using alternative methods. You may use that service animal for stability, so think about having backup aids like a cane or a walker. And always, (just as) you need to prepare an emergency kit for yourself, you need to also do that for your service animal. You want to include things such as food, water and bedding. If they’re on any medications, pack them (as well) as an extra leash, toys, that type of thing. And have an updated photo of your animal as well.

If you’re a caregiver to a person with a disability or a family member who provides care, what are just some of the important things to consider in planning for their safety during emergencies?
Emergency preparedness is not a one-time thing that you address and then you’re done. It’s an ongoing process that needs to be revisited — your plans need to be updated and it needs to be constantly practiced. information is always changing — from contact phone numbers to medications to an individual’s abilities and skill levels — so as a caregiver or family member you can share in the responsibility that the plan is maintained and continuously updated.

Where can people go to get more information about emergency and disaster preparedness, for people with disabilities?
It’s about getting local. Check with your county (or) your city emergency managers. If you have a center for independent living in your community, check their resources. Our office, which is the Oregon Office of Disability and Health, (has) a curriculum that we created for individual preparedness. It kind of walks you through, step-by-step. We call that the (Ready Now! Emergency Preparedness Tool Kit for People with Disabilities) and this can be downloaded for free and it’s on our website.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA. Posted March 14, 2012

Podcast
Listen to this interview as a two-part podcast. See episode 24 on the Get Ready Report podcast series page.