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



Lawrence Roffee, Executive Director, U.S. Architectural and Transportation Compliance Board (Access Board), and Mary Ann Wilson, Director, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Larry Roffee, U.S. Access Board, and Mary Ann Wilson, U.S. HUD Office in Richmond, VA, shared lessons learned regarding emergency preparedness for people with disabilites.

Seminar participants next heard from Lawrence Roffee, Executive Director, U.S. Architectural and Transportation Compliance Board (Access Board), and Mary Ann Wilson, Director, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Richmond, VA. These Federal managers shared their unique perspectives with Seminar participants—representing the experiences of an agency with a workforce that is 50% disabled (Access Board) and an agency office that has actually endured an emergency situation resulting from terrorism (HUD).

The goal of this particular session was to develop a clearer understanding of the level of detail required from federal managers to promote safety for their employees with disabilities. The strength of an emergency preparedness plan can never be fully measured until it has been tested in an actual emergency situation. However, it is possible to create new plans and fortify existing emergency plans to ensure they are as comprehensive as possible in securing the safety of employees and customers with disabilities. Some of the most valuable resources in developing such plans are the experiences of federal managers who have addressed the emergency preparedness needs of a significant number of employees with disabilities or who have been involved in an emergency situation.

The central theme of Mr. Roffee’s remarks consisted of the eight rules of emergency preparedness planning for people with disabilities. During his presentation, Roffee admitted that prior to September 11, 2001, his agency did not have an adequate emergency preparedness plan, despite the fact that more than half his staff had at least one targeted disability. Following an emergency situation in the privately owned building where the Access Board is located, he became acutely aware of the agency’s deficiencies in this area. He set about to rectify the situation. From this process, Roffee identified eight rules to developing effective emergency preparedness plans. He explained that although these rules were gleaned from the experiences of the Access Board, they could be applied to other agencies, where appropriate.

  • Rule #1: Make sure people with disabilities are an integral part of the planning process. Roffee explained that a person with a disability knows best what he or she may require in the event of an emergency. Indeed, the contributions of an employee with a disability can be advantageous to the overall emergency preparedness planning effort. As Roffee quipped, “I’m guessing that [a blind] person [is in a better position to lead someone] out in a dark smoky stairwell much easier than a sighted person.” Moreover, Roffee urged people to “never make assumptions about what a person with a disability [cannot] do” and do not hesitate to ask an employee with a disability about the kinds of assistance he or she may need in the event of an emergency.
  • Rule # 2: Inform the local fire department about any particular issues that you have identified with respect to the employees with disabilities. More importantly, be sure to let the fire department know where employees with disabilities are located in the facility. According to Roffee, “Fire officials really do not want a bunch of people carrying a bunch of other people with disabilities out of the building.” Doing so may cause more chaos and actually impede fire officials from stabilizing the situation. It is important to “work with the local fire department” to develop plans that are not cumbersome.
  • Rule #3: Communicate with building managers and engineers about the various communication, alarm and sprinkler systems in the building, as well as the designated location of "areas of rescue assistance." The importance of being familiar with these systems cannot be over emphasized, as they will have a vast impact on the design of an emergency preparedness plan.
  • Rule #4: Do not rely on a "buddy system." A buddy system typically consists of assigning an able-bodied employee to assist an employee Group of men and women in the workforce - one man is in a wheelchairwith a disability in the event of an emergency. Roffee emphatically maintained that the “buddy system simply does not work” for several reasons. It can lead to “not-my-job syndrome’” Or, at the very least, the buddy assigned to the employee with a disability may not be in the office the very day, hour, or moment an alarm sounds. A better more effective alternative, suggested Roffee, is to have the volunteers and the employees with disabilities convene in a pre-determined area and wait for further instruction.
  • Rule # 5: Purchase evacuation chairs, and plan to evacuate any mobility devices (e.g., wheelchairs) that evacuation chair users may require once they have been removed from the emergency situation. According to Roffee, many fire departments have ladders that cannot reach the entire height of a multiple story building. By having evacuation chairs available, people with disabilities can, at the very least, be moved to an area or floor where emergency response personnel can assist them further. Additionally, having a plan in place that provides for the evacuation of mobility devices makes for a smoother transition for the employees who use these devices. Otherwise, employees will be “basically helpless” once they have left the emergency situation.
  • Rule # 6: Plan for communications. This includes not only developing a system of communication that is accessible to and useable by everyone, but also knowing how to utilize the system.
  • Rule # 7: Designate an emergency situation room. This room should have windows that face the street, along with a “HELP HERE” sign. This room should also be equipped with telephones and other equipment pertinent to your communication plan in this room.
  • Rule # 8: Practice, practice, practice! Roffee regarded practicing as an essential component of emergency preparedness. It is impossible to adequately prepare for an emergency situation without having practiced. Roffee also stated that apathy about practicing weakens a good emergency preparedness plan. Therefore, it is very important to practice regularly, and to ensure that each practice session is taken as seriously as an actual emergency.

Mary Ann Wilson’s remarks were based upon her experiences on September 11, 2001, while assigned to the HUD office at the World Trade Center in New York. She depicted a scene of unwavering uncertainty that was augmented by the lack of a comprehensive plan. The deficiencies were numerous. Wilson told participants that she was unaware of the following issues at the time: the evacuation policy; the members of her staff who were in the office; who had a disability and the nature of those disabilities; an accessible door designed to accommodate a person with a disability did not work; the communication system was inaudible; and the service elevator, used by people unable to take the stairs, was experiencing problems.

Like Roffee of the Access Board, Wilson provided participants with a checklist of important items she considered critical to emergency preparedness. In many respects, they were similar to the eight rules presented by Roffee. For example:

  • Wilson implored participants to practice. However, she added that employees should be debriefed after every drill to find out how the emergency plan succeeds, and, more importantly, how it fails.
  • She suggested that agencies have a regularly updated continuity of operations plan that not only considers the needs of people with disabilities, but that also makes them a part of the planning process.
  • Her next suggestion was to make sure the evacuation plan is posted and accessible—and strongly encourage all employees to be familiar with it.
  • Another suggestion proffered was to establish a policy where employees should take necessary items (e.g., a purse and car keys) when attending meetings or conducting other business away from their desk, even if it is in the same building.
  • Wilson also urged participants to remain flexible at all costs. “Don’t count on anything. Be prepared, because so many things are not going to work. And, you are just going to have to be flexible and prepared to go at it another way.”

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