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October 20, 2008    DOL Home > ODEP > Publications > Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities


E. Support Mechanisms

Using the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) emergency preparedness plans as case studies, this session examined factors related to determining whether to establish a cross-training system, buddy system, or to rely extensively on high-tech informational alert systems.

Additionally, many fundamental principles related to support mechanisms in the workplace were to be highlighted. For example, because many Access Board employees have varied work and travel schedules, it is difficult to predict which employees may be in the office in the event of an emergency. Thus, the Access Board has focused on cross-training in order to ensure that as many employees as possible can provide assistance and perform the various roles called for in their emergency preparedness plan.

Bruce McFarlane, Director of the USDA’s TARGET Center, explained how the USDA embarked on its road to emergency preparedness. The process began after a 1993 fire drill where multiple employees with disabilities were left behind or not able to evacuate. Following that event, a panel consisting of six employees convened to ensure this would not happen again. Fortunately, there were key management personnel who were personally affected by the issues related to having a disability. They took interest in the topic and began to listen. In 1994, the panel prepared Occupant Emergency Plan Review for Employees with Disabilities. A key recommendation of the report was the call for autonomy and independent decision-making authority in emergency planning.

Peg Blechman, Compliance Specialist at the Access Board, said the events of September 11, 2001 led her agency to re-examine its plan. Staff took an inventory of the following, which she believes is key to planning and development:

  1. Who is on-site (i.e., staff, board members, and visitors): The Access Board relied on individuals to self-identify, then worked with each person individually to determine their needs, choices, and preferences. The office flow pattern, number of staff, and out-of-office frequency were also studied.
  2. Location of the building and office: For example, the offices of the Access Board are located on the 10th floor of a building near the White House.
  3. Building characteristics: This includes the stairways, landings, exits, alarms, elevators, etc. This is important in developing plans, identifying problems (i.e., trash in stairways), and establishing methods to address these issues. It is best to do so prior to an emergency or incident.
  4. Building management: Talk with the building management and security staff. Determine the building plan, relationships with police and fire departments, location of the building command center, etc.

The Access Board learned that the police and fire department go to the front desk first. This gives them an overview of what is happening in the building. It is here the Access Board posted a list of all the people with disabilities and their preferences for evacuation (i.e., staff members who preferred to wait in the office’s safe area for firemen or police rather than use an evacuation chair). Briefings were held for local fire departments regarding Access Board plans.

Additional follow-up action included the purchase of appropriate equipment (e.g., evacuation chairs, radio walkie-talkies) and the establishment of offices designated as “waiting areas” and assembly areas. Emergency equipment is stored in the “waiting area” offices when not in use. Blechman noted the agency consistently practices, revises, and updates its plan. She said, “"The key is practice, practice, practice.”

McFarlane highlighted several fundamental principles to emergency preparedness planning:

  • Timely and accurate information: People with disabilities need timely and accurate information in order to make decisions.
  • Representation: Emergency planning/policy committees should include people with disabilities, and others familiar with the needs of this segment of the workforce. It is important that all types of disabilities are represented (i.e., vision, mobility, cognitive, and hearing), and that these committee members present a broad perspective rather than an individual one. Key to successful negotiations on such committees is that the person(s) who represents people with disabilities should not do so “in a demand mode.” McFarlane said members must understand the limitations (e.g., financial) management face and prioritize. Know how to pick your battles. Involve all key players in the organization (managers, workers, etc.). This facilitates creative thinking and innovative solutions.
  • Management Support: The support of management is crucial to affecting change, since change usually has the most impact when it comes from the top down. One possible method of getting management on board is to present the risk(s) for the organization (i.e., One person getting hurt will impact over 100 people.).
  • Redundancy: This is important when it comes to not only practicing a plan but also notifying employees about an emergency. McFarlane explained that the nature of the emergency impacts both the response and the means of notification. Agencies must have multiple means of relaying information to staff regarding an emergency. Discussion followed about the fact that sometimes it is necessary to have personnel remain in place or inform those outside the building not to return. McFarlane reiterated that in any event all notification systems should have backup alternatives. For example, messages should be repeated at least two to three times and kept very short when announced over the PA system.

The USDA uses a pager system to notify deaf employees about emergencies. These pagers have two numbers: one for the pager itself, and the other to let individuals know that there is an emergency. All other pagers are dialed remotely. Nevertheless, McFarlane admitted that the USDA still has unresolved issues with this system. About one third of deaf employees refuse to wear the pagers, due to either the stigma or the fact that it does not fit on their clothes. Despite these problems, Blechman commented that the USDA had gone further than many agencies in developing notification strategies.

Notification Systems

Agencies must ensure that a variety of notification systems are in place. These should be well understood by all employees. Below are some systems and the situations in which they can be utilized.

  • Fire alarms: Evacuation only
  • HIPS Pagers (persons who are deaf or hard of hearing): Fire alarms only.
  • Computer Electronic Notification System (CENS): These can be used in all situations. Must make sure the software system affords access to all. This will require it to be compatible with screen readers and speech recognition software (Good system for shelter-in-place).
  • Warden Phones: These are phones located at elevators that connect to a command center. The command center informs persons with mobility impairments whether or not it is safe to use elevators. A button inside the elevators allows individuals to contact the command center. One participant believed TTYs (teletypewriters) should also be installed in elevators to ensure similar access for deaf or hard of hearing employees.
  • PA System
  • Wireless Communication Devices (e.g., pagers, PDAs, cell phones)
  • Short-Wave Radios: Floor Monitors and drivers use these radios.
  • Emergency Hotline: People off-site are able to call in and obtain more information about the situation.
  • Web Site Information
  • Buddy System: This system is person and location dependent. McFarlane believes that such systems generally only have drawbacks when used exclusively.

The Buddy System and Cross-Training

In McFarlane’s opinion, plans should not be based on the person being in their own office at the time of an emergency. He believes that generally planning that is person or location dependent has glaring weaknesses. Consequently, he sees the buddy system as not exclusively effective, since it is both person and location dependent.

Blechman said the Access Board chose not to use the buddy system, given staff travel and training schedules and the agency size (less than 30 staff). Instead, staff who volunteered to work with people with disabilities during an emergency situation were cross-trained.

If agencies choose to utilize the buddy system, she recommended that “participation be voluntary, volunteers be cross-trained and have volunteers assemble at central location(s).” If the buddy or the employee is unavailable, a backup system should be utilized. She emphasized that redundancy is key!

Additional Egress Issues

Many of the participants had additional questions and concerns related to egress. Specific issues raised during the discussion related to employees who may take longer to evacuate; use of elevators; equipment selection; and education and training.

One of the participants asked how to address the issue of a person who believes he/she does not need assistance, but is in fact impeding others during an evacuation. McFarlane said his response would depend on if the person were a permanent or temporary employee. If it were a permanent employee, he would likely discuss the issue with the person one-on-one. If it were a temporary individual, the decision would be up to the hall monitor. A solution might be to suggest the individual use the elevator, if possible.

A question was raised regarding the use of elevators during fires. Fire codes in some locations, such as New York, preclude the use of elevators during fire emergencies (in high rise buildings). The panelist suggested this could be overcome in situations where there are multiple banks of elevators. An “enunciator panel” allows on-site safety/security personnel (e.g., the fire department) to determine the location of the fire. If the elevator is on an independent power source and not in the vicinity of the emergency, people could possibly be directed to another part of the building.

Participants suggested two other possible solutions: designating a particular stairwell for use by people with disabilities or using evacuation chairs. One of the presenters pointed out that the first suggestion presents a problem, especially if the emergency (i.e., bomb, fire) is in that area. It is important to prepare for use of all stairwells in the building. Using an evacuation chair may present some problems as well. Blechman pointed out that an individual’s wheelchair might need to be left behind, making it difficult for the person to get around once outside. In addition, there has been little research regarding the safety of various chairs. One solution at some agencies has been to leave spare wheelchairs in the stairwells or lobbies.

Blechman contended agencies and safety personnel need to be educated as to what can and cannot be done regarding emergency preparedness for employees with disabilities. She said federal agencies and federal contractors must understand their responsibilities under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. She reiterated the importance of receiving support from upper management. Safety personnel should also be made aware of those who need assistance. To this end, she encouraged both agencies and individuals to be proactive when addressing barriers both inside and outside the building. For example, make sure that security barricades are not blocking accessible routes away from the building. Finally, she encouraged agencies to continue working together following the Seminar. Both she and McFarlane said they would like to see the establishment of an interagency working group to address the issue of emergency preparedness for people with disabilities.

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