FEMA Discusses Improving Disaster Planning for People with Disabilities

FEMAA March 22 conference call hosted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) focused on understanding the special needs of people with disabilities and how they could be best served in the event of a disaster.

The call, led by FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino, took place in Atlanta at Georgia Tech, a university renowned for its research and assistive technology work.

The main two topics of the call were how to effectively alert people with disabilities when emergencies strike; and the challenge of keeping assistive technology, including power wheelchairs and augmentative communications devices, adequately charged during emergencies.

Helena Mitchell, executive director, Center for Advanced Communications Policy at Georgia Tech and former chief of the Emergency Broadcast System of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), spoke about the challenges of reaching people with disabilities when an emergency alert is broadcast.

Mitchell noted that research showed people with disabilities receive emergency alerts in a variety of ways, including via TV, car radio, e-mail, the Internet, telephone and reverse 911. Mitchell pointed out that advances in technology were "fundamentally changing how we communicate during emergencies." She added that more than 96 percent of the general public, and 85 percent of people with disabilities, now use wireless services.

Mitchell said she and her colleagues have held focus groups for people living with disabilities. "From our results," she says, "we know that there are accessibility issues that need to be addressed, including visual and auditory alerts."

The other major topic of the conference call focused on the many different power chargers used by people who own assistive technology products. In addition to needing chargers to re-energize wheelchairs and alternative speech devices, personal electronics equipment such as phones, laptop computers and iPads also require frequent recharging.

Consumers with disabilities, therefore, would be forced to carry multiple chargers, many of them quite large and heavy, when evacuating their homes. In addition, the buildings that serve as emergency shelters — schools, churches and other community facilities — usually are not equipped with large numbers of power outlets.

The busy pace and loud noise levels of emergency shelters can also take a toll on people with special needs.

One caller during the question-and-answer session asked how emergency shelters would accommodate people with autism: "We have facilities that may not have the right space to support a lot of needs. I'm concerned with (shelters) that are supporting folks with autism, ADHD, other needs that (require) a quiet (environment)."

Marcie Roth, FEMA's director of the Office of Disability Integration & Coordination, said the agency's regional disability integration specialists are working with communities and experts within those communities to improve shelter accommodations for people with disabilities.

"We want to make sure we're bringing folks together to engage in those kinds of discussions," Roth said.

Deputy Administrator Serino encouraged anyone with an interest in emergency planning and management to participate in FEMA's Think Tank.

Do you have an idea to contribute? Visit FEMA's Collaboration Community Web site to share it and see what other community members are discussing. You can also visit the FEMA Think Tank Web site to stay up to date on future conference calls, which are held monthly on different disaster-related topics and are open to the public via toll-free phone number.

Photo courtesy FEMA/Jeannie Mooney.

About the Author

Laurie Watanabe is the editor of Mobility Management. She can be reached at lwatanabe@1105media.com.