A. Communicating with Employees
The ability to communicate effectively with all employees is vital
to the development, implementation, and maintenance of any emergency
preparedness plan. Communication or lack thereof can impact the establishment
of emergency plans, maintenance of an effective plan, and response to drills
and/or an actual emergency. In short, it directly impacts an individuals
ability to remain safe in an emergency, and can mean the difference between
life and death.
The Communicating with Employees forum gave participants
the opportunity to learn about communication strategies that can be used to
ensure employees with disabilities are part of the emergency preparedness
process. Topics that were addressed included specific considerations for
communicating with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing, identifying
employees requiring assistance, and obtaining necessary information from
employees in a manner consistent with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as
According to Dr. Carl Cameron, founder of The Disability
Preparedness Center, several factors can impact communication in the emergency
preparedness process. First and foremost, people with disabilities are not
included in the planning process. Little, if any, communication exists between
planners and the disability community. This may be due in part to a lack of
training or understanding regarding the needs of people with disabilities.
Because of the varying communication, support, and health considerations among
people with disabilities, emergency planning and response personnel may not
know how or where to begin in considering this segment of the workforce.
Cameron offered these suggestions to emergency management personnel and federal
- Involve people with disabilities in the planning
process: Take into account both the meeting space and materials. Make sure
they are accessible to personnel with disabilities.
- Include disability specific procedures: This may
entail reviewing the emergency plan, securing input from individuals with
disabilities as to what accommodations are necessary, and developing procedures
and practicing them.
- Train response personnel: It is important to include
information for assisting individuals with disabilities in emergency
preparedness training, but be prepared for disagreementparticularly
within the disability community. Involve individuals with disabilities as
- Provide pro-active information: Make sure information
is readily accessible in a variety of formats (e.g., in a Word document, via
the Web). Secure and share materials regarding emergency preparedness for
people with disabilities with emergency management personnel and
- Create a special needs list
Sharon Rennert, EEOC Attorney, looked on while
Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director for the Northern Virginia Resource Center
for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, described communication strategies.
Cheryl Heppner, Executive Director of The Northern Virginia
Resource Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Persons, addressed some the unique
considerations for communicating with employees who are deaf or hard of
hearing. Plans need to include ways to relay the same level of detailed
information to all staff at all times. This involves determining such
considerations as how information will be conveyed to deaf or hard of hearing
employees when they are away from their desks or office. As Heppner noted, an
emergency plan is useless unless an individual understands the type of
emergency or shelter-in-place. She provided the following example:
A deaf individual had no knowledge of what had happened at the
Twin Towers or the Pentagon. A co-worker hand-signed the word, war
and told him to get out. When he was outside the building, he didnt see
any of his co-workers, so he went back into the office. One co-worker, who was
still there, again spelled out in sign alphabet the word war and
told him to go home. He had no detailed information on what was going
This experience was not unique. Reports from organizations
indicated that widespread difficulties were experienced across the
nation (Heppner, 2003, p. 2). A national follow-up survey in Spring 2003
asked what plans or procedures had been implemented. This second survey
found that only a few isolated attempts had been made across the U.S. and that
there was little or no sharing of information or coordination of efforts
(Heppner, 2003, p. 2) .
Given these findings, she sees five key points when communicating
with employees who are deaf or hard of hearing:
- Implement a variety of systems to communicate, not just
- Develop strategies for communicating with people who are away
from their desk;
- Involve people who are deaf or hard of hearing in the planning
- Ensure that the emergency-planning manual has information
specific to people who are deaf or hard of hearing; and
- Advocate for a variety of communication methods.
However, Cameron also pointed out that persons with disabilities
must take responsibility for their own well-being and should play an active
(not passive) role in the process. Clarifying roles and responsibilities of
both the emergency management staff and building occupants, having a plan of
action, and practicing the plan to make sure it is effective are essential
elements to emergency planning. The worst-case scenario must be considered when
Additional elements include the psychological and human factors
that impact plans. People with cognitive disabilities and/or some psychiatric
issues may have difficulty understanding what is happening or dealing with the
need to alter routines in an emergency situation. Others may require
assistance, such as someone to help during an evacuation or a shelter-in-place.
Talking directly to individual employees about their needs is imperative. Just
as one emergency plan does not fit every agency, one employee with a disability
does not represent all employees with disabilities in an agency.
Agencies can talk to employees about their needs and involve
people with disabilities in the planning process consistent with the
requirements of the Rehabilitation Act. Sharon Rennert, Senior Attorney Advisor
with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), explained there
are two main issues related to employee information and emergency planning: 1)
obtaining information from employees and 2) sharing the information with
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended, does not bar agencies
or federal contractors from gathering pertinent information (e.g., the type(s)
of emergency assistance an individual needs and how it relates to the
individuals disability), or disseminating it to necessary personnel;
nevertheless, there are some guidelines as to how and when the information can
be obtained, and the exact nature and with whom the data can be shared.
Employers are permitted to get employee medical information for use in
emergency planning. It is important to reassure employees of
confidentiality: that the information will be shared only with those
responsible for safety and emergency evacuation. Rennert stressed the value of
having a dialogue with employees, and clearly sharing the reason for
There are three key opportunities to obtain information that may
be critical for emergency purposes:
- After the job offer is made but before an individual begins
work, the agency may ask the person to complete a questionnaire regarding
emergency evacuation needs.
- An agency may periodically survey the entire workforce.
- If the manager knows that an individual has a disability, he
or she can ask whether the individual might need assistance during an
emergency. For example, consider a shelter-in-place: does an employee have
dietary or medical needs? Also, keep in mind that there may not be an
interpreter in the shelter. Determine what accommodations are needed to
communicate with a person who is deaf.
With regard to sharing the information with others, here are
several important points to keep in mind:
- Designate an individual at your agency who knows and clearly
understands these needs. Ensure that someone is responsible for providing the
- Share only necessary and appropriate information regarding
emergency needsnot irrelevant disability-related information with
safety and emergency evacuation personnel.
Following the presentations, the discussion and questions centered
around the need for employees to take an active role in preparedness efforts
and the steps being taken to improve plans and technology access in the Federal
Although plans may exist, there is often an element of the unknown
during an emergency. More importantly, emergency personnel may be unable to
meet every need immediately. Employees must also take active steps to prepare
on a personal level. Consideration must be given to what will happen not only
during, but also following an emergency. For example, how will employees get
home if public transportation is not operating? What happens if an employee
requires medication during a shelter-in-place? Effective practices may include
keeping extra supplies and medication at the office. Several concerns included
storing such items, and whether or not additional medication would be approved
and covered by doctors and insurance companies.
With regard to efforts being made by the Federal Government to
ensure plans are inclusive, it was noted that no federal agency is tasked with
this responsibility. Evaluation standards for such plans would be difficult
given the differences in size, structure, and location among agencies.
Nevertheless, agencies may be working individually to strengthen emergency
preparedness plans. For example, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has
an initiative to improve access to technology.