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 USDAs 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 offices 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
- Timely and accurate information: People with
disabilities need timely and accurate information in order to make
- 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.
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
- Short-Wave Radios: Floor Monitors and drivers use
- 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 McFarlanes 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 individuals 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
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.