Preparing for the Next Emergency – Part 1

Preparing for the Next Emergency – Part 1

Editor: How good is our emergency preparedness? That topic has certainly received lots of attention since September 11, 2001, and there seems to be considerable disagreement regarding how much progress we’ve made. How good is our emergency preparedness for people with disabilities? That topic has received almost no attention, and our preparedness reflects that lack of attention.

Here’s an article by Cheryl Heppner, NVRC Executive Director on a presentation by Carl T. Cameron, Ph.D., of the Disability Preparedness Center.
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October 16, 2003

By Cheryl Heppner, NVRC Executive Director

This presentation took place at the Annual ADA Update sponsored by the Maryland Coalition for ADA Education and the ADA & IT Center. The Disability Preparedness Center is part of the Inclusion Institute, a nonprofit organization. Dr. Cameron spends much of his time in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. He first got involved in the issue of emergency preparedness for people with disabilities in the late 1990s with the advent of community right to know legislation. This legislation set requirements for communities to inform residents of dangerous situations such as a discharge from a chemical plant. People with disabilities began to ask questions about how they would be included.

A Slow Process

– People who are supposed to know about this kind of preparation are still in the process of evolving. This includes the Department of Homeland Security, which has combined 22 separate agencies.

– Few people know the emergency planning process being conducted by state and local governments. And those involved in the planning know little about disability. Very little consultation of people with disabilities is being done. Part of the reason is that first responders tend to plan as if all people are alike, dealing with the technical aspects of an emergency. The planners are surprised to realize that people with disabilities are different.

Federal Legislation

– Three laws dealing with emergency preparedness: Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA), operation of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and operation of the Department of Homeland Security.

– The EPCRA primarily affects the Environmental Protection Agency. It was one of the first landmark pieces of legislation on emergency preparedness. Originally it covered chemical accidents, but it has been expanded to include all emergencies. A few years ago containers full of chemicals were parked along D.C.’s southeast freeway where they could easily have been set off, resulting in a cloud of toxic chemicals. The man who pointed this out got fired but was later reinstated. Websites used to have worst case scenarios like this, but they were pulled after September 11 due to concerns that terrorists could easily use this information to their advantage. The EPCRA established state emergency response commissions and also calls for local emergency preparedness committees (LEPCs). They are a good way to get community input in the process. Typically Dr. Cameron talks with them and they have no people with disabilities on their committees, nor do they know where to find people with disabilities. Federal funding from this program is being used to sponsor staged disaster events, which are another opportunity for people with disabilities to get involved in the process of emergency planning. For info on the ECPRA: www.epa.gov/ceppo/lepclist.htm

– FEMA is now under the Department of Homeland Security. It is a very small agency with a lot of contractors. FEMA has developed Community Emergency Response Teams. People with disabilities can ask to be involved in these teams.

– Right now emergency preparedness funding is going heavily to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We can go to them, look at some projects to find out what they are doing, and then ask if we can get funding to do this as well. DHS is giving funding to state and local communities for emergency preparation. DHS is thinking about implementing a disaster plan. This is out for public comment and we can give input.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

– The Americans with Disabilities Act equal access clause covers emergency preparedness. People with disabilities must be included in emergency planning and processes but the Dept. of Justice has made few decisions on this. We will probably see a test case eventually.

– An example of the ADA’s test of reasonableness, when applied to emergency preparation, is something that came up on September 11 and will probably come back in the next disaster.

– A local government or agency must include planning for people with disabilities in their local emergency planning and evacuation procedures. If they provide a service for others, they must provide it for people with disabilities.

Here’s Part Two