skip navigational linksDOL Seal - Link to DOL Home Page
Photos representing the workforce - Digital Imagery© copyright 2001 PhotoDisc, Inc.
October 20, 2008    DOL Home > ODEP > Publications > Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities


F. Regional and Field Office Considerations

Elizabeth Davis and Dr. Alan Clive

Elizabeth Davis, Director of NOD’s Emergency Preparedness Initiative (EPI), and Alan Clive, FEMA Civil Rights Program Manager, led a discussion on regional emergency preparedness.

Regional and field offices face unique challenges when it comes to emergency preparedness planning. Federal agencies and offices must consider the needs of employees with disabilities, personnel previously unidentified as having a disability, and the public. It is vital that federal safety plans do not conflict with other agencies and/or business tenants sharing building locations. This session was to examine the importance of involving all stakeholders in planning and implementation as well as identifying and working with nontraditional planning partners, such as local emergency professionals, property management, and building safety directors. There were to be additional references to planning methodology, situational differences among agencies, and support materials.

Dr. Alan Clive, Civil Rights Program Manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), began by explaining that agencies have to contend with three main issues when developing emergency plans.

  • Location/type of building: federal agencies throughout the country have unique characteristics. Some are located in Government-built and owned buildings. Others are located in skyscrapers, where the government leases several floors. Some are sole occupants, while others share space with other federal agencies or private employees. Some occupy entire campuses, while others may be isolated industrial-style facilities, such as warehouses.
  • Population: Agencies must take into account who is in the building. Some federal agencies (e.g., Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and FEMA) have very few non-government personnel in the building. Other offices, especially those that provide services to the public, have a constant flow of visitors and non-government personnel (e.g., Social Security Administration (SSA) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)). Such factors should be considered in evacuation planning.
  • Hazards: Clive encouraged participants to be prepared for a variety of hazards, including natural and man-made disasters, chemical spills and power outages. He cited such events as the September 11th attacks and the 2003 power outage in the Midwest that impacted much of the East Coast. Such events galvanized many, including the disability community, to consider needs they may have in an emergency.

It was stressed that ultimately each office needs to customize its plan, determining the most effective practices given location, population, financial constraints, and emergency preparedness needs.

Rethinking “Special Needs”

While accommodations can and should be made for those with distinctive needs (e.g., elderly, people with disabilities, those with unique medical needs), Elizabeth Davis, Director of the National Organization on Disability’s (NOD) Emergency Preparedness Initiative (EPI), explained that there is no consensus on the best strategy, technology, or tools to assist people with disabilities in an emergency. There are complaints that with the quick growth in the market for emergency equipment for people with disabilities, no standards exist to advise purchasers on the effectiveness or safety of specific equipment. Until such standards exist, she said, “Buyers beware.”

She added that in the General Services Administration’s (GSA) Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP), which serves as a framework for federal agencies, there are no special emergency-support functions, because special needs fits into each emergency support function. Every government agency that occupies federally-owned or leased space must have an OEP.

Certain aspects of a plan may need to be tailored to meet employees’ needs; however, Davis and Clive contend that general emergency planning for people with disabilities should be an integral part of the entire process—not a separate practice or an afterthought. Davis urged agencies to plan for a gap in ability during an emergency, not for disability.

Such an approach to planning would take into account those who may suddenly need assistance evacuating a building in the event of an emergency. For example, a pregnant woman may have difficulty walking down the stairs. If certain exits are blocked, a person who uses a wheelchair or scooter may need assistance. She cautioned participants not to assume what employees can or cannot do in the event of an emergency. Planning for those with distinctive needs can have application for everyone. Several participants reiterated this idea.

Others had specific questions related to individuals who may take longer to evacuate the buildings. The presenters and fellow participants recommended such alternatives as establishing ‘areas of refuge’ or ‘areas of rescue assistance,’ re-evaluating policies related to elevator use for evacuation, and widening stairwells in future construction[s].

Planning Considerations

Even the most comprehensive plans will not be perfect. Davis said agencies should do the best they can to establish predictable certainty. In the event of legal challenges of discrimination in planning, establishing intent or disparate impact can be difficult. Remember that an emergency crisis is an equal opportunity injury-causing event. Finally, these suggestions were offered for those in regional and field offices:

  • Become advocates with regard to emergency preparedness planning. Davis encouraged managers and decision-makers to include those who are not typically involved in the internal agency planning process (e.g., human resources personnel, and first responders). Consider the community-based organizations that can provide assistance, and establish relationships with these agencies. Be sure to utilize resources in the building as well (i.e., a medical clinic). However, do not plan for people with disabilities, but plan with all employees. By doing so, everyone has the opportunity to offer creative solutions, identify issues, and be a part of the process.
  • Keep plans updated and involve employees in the process. Davis said she believes that most emergency plans are created in a vacuum, then buried. Plans should be reviewed, revised, and practiced on a regular basis.

    It is helpful for agencies to develop a template and methodology around planning, (regular) testing, and updating plans. This can be as simple as a very general outline that can then be expanded upon by individual regions and field offices. Keep in mind that even within field offices, plans may need to be further individualized to accommodate individuals or situations.

  • Share information with other agencies and employees. Determine effective practices, and examine the reasons why something did or did not work. Clive and Davis explained that in such situations, it is acceptable to take ideas from another agency.

Davis said that emergency preparedness plans need to become familiar to all personnel at a site from the agency/division director to the evening cleaning crew, since an emergency can occur at any time. This ensures a cadre of people in place who are aware; alert; and able to take quick, appropriate action.

Previous Page

Table of Contents

Next Page

Phone Numbers