LESSONS LEARNED: PERSPECTIVES FROM FEDERAL
MANAGERS AND EMPLOYEES WITH DISABILITIES
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 participantsrepresenting 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
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. Roffees 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 agencys 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, Im 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
with 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
- 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 Wilsons 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 accessibleand 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. Dont 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.