mergency Services at State and Local Levels – Hard of Hearing and Deaf People – A WSD Workshop

mergency Services at State and Local Levels – Hard of Hearing and Deaf People – A WSD Workshop

Those of you who have been reading our newsletter for awhile are aware of our (to date unsuccessful) efforts to promote the inclusion of people with hearing loss in San Diego’s emergency planning activities. So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear about Randy Collin’s successful work with Arizona authorities!

Randy opened his presentation with this quote from “Emergency Preparedness for Older People” by Nora O’Brien: “Within 24 hours following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, animal advocates were on the scene rescuing pets; yet abandoned older and disabled people waited for up to seven days for an ad hoc medical team to rescue them.” He pointed out that this wasn’t intentional behavior, but rather an unfortunate oversight. Emergency planners are clueless about people with disabilities, so it’s not surprising that their needs are not taken into consideration.

Getting Started

Randy summarizes this situation with a statement that requires a bit of thought: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re not part of the problem.” To be part of the solution means to be an integral part of the development of the solution; in this case, people with hearing loss have to be involved in emergency planning activities. If they’re not, when a real emergency occurs, the emergency personnel forget that people with hearing loss are involved in the emergency, too (they are not part of the problem). And they are overlooked in subsequent rescue operations.

Randy’s initial efforts to get involved in emergency planning in Arizona were met with the “runaround”. Each agency he contacted told him that he should contact some other agency. Frustrated by this treatment, Randy lied to his government, and it worked!

He called the State Office of Emergency Services and reported that a gentleman in Tucson had asked if the videos about emergency procedures would be captioned. And that was the turning point. An agency called to ask what they needed to do to include people with disabilities; then another called, then another. Soon he was involved in the network that oversaw emergency planning in Arizona.

He organized a committee to discuss the issue, and was fortunate to attract many first responders and people with a variety of disabilities. The first thing they learned was that everyone had to climb a big vocabulary learning curve, because initially terms meant very different things to different people. One example is the term “special needs”. Despite different meanings within the various groups, within that committee “special needs” came to mean anyone who needs attendant care.

The second thing they learned was that emergency evacuation of pigs and chickens was included in the State Emergency Plan, but that emergency evacuation of people with disabilities was NOT included! So their goal became to get included in that plan.

Additional fundamental principles included:
– Emergency services in Arizona are primarily local
– Terrorism is a concern, but is not the focus of emergency planning
– The State Emergency Plan functions as a guideline for local professionals

Randy was dismayed to learn that hard of hearing and deaf people, like hearing people, are often not especially concerned with emergency planning.

Some Effective Measures

One program that he strongly recommends is the Vial of Life Program. It’s quite well known among seniors and within some medical communities, but not so well known within the hearing loss community. The program includes a small vial that contains information that emergency personnel would want to have, such as medical information, the fact that a person has hearing loss, etc. The vial is placed in a refrigerator, and emergency personnel are trained to look for it.

Arizona has taken several steps to ensure that emergency information reaches people with hearing loss, including:
– Establishing a telephone tree to spread emergency information.
– Establishing a procedure that any alert issued by the Public Information Office will also be emailed to the Arizona Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, so they can disseminate it within the hearing loss community.
– Promoting the use of captioned emergency radio.

Perhaps the most effective accomplishment was the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency drills. You would expect that it took some convincing of the emergency personnel to get this idea accepted, but you might be surprised to learn that it also took some convincing of members of the hearing loss community! But everyone eventually agreed, and a system was in place that allowed both emergency personnel and members of the hearing loss community to experience simulated emergency situations that included people with hearing loss.

One fairly obvious problem arose during the preparation for the first drill. Everyone gathered in a large room to receive instructions, and the people with hearing loss had no idea what was being said.

Another difficult situation occurred in the simulated decontamination room. Emergency personnel in decontamination suits (that included face shields) oversaw the decontamination of people who went through the decontamination room naked (well, simulated naked for the drill 😉 As you might expect, communication between a worker wearing a face shield and a person with hearing loss who couldn’t use hearing aids, CIs, ALDs, etc. proved challenging. The drill also revealed the need to have a manual wheelchair available, because motorized wheelchairs don’t fare well in a decontamination room.

These and other situations were discussed during the post-drill discussions. It’s clearly far better to discover and solve these problems during the drill, than during a real emergency!

Ongoing Efforts

Participating in the first emergency drill is, of course, just a start. Ensuring that people with disabilities continue to be included in emergency planning is an ongoing effort. Here are some suggested activities:
– Continued participation in all aspects of emergency training
– Involvement with the Citizens Emergency Response Team (CERT) – this program trains citizens so they are able to assist in emergencies
– FEMA training, which includes a three-day workshop in every state

Randy suggests that representatives of all disability groups work together on efforts to be included in emergency planning; you’re more likely to be heard if you represent a larger group of people.