Public officials promote personal preparedness planning as a best practice measure and emergency situations are featured in the media on a regular basis, yet many individuals and households are unprepared to respond to emergency situations and natural disasters.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 70% of Americans haven’t practiced for a disaster and are not prepared.
While this is a staggeringly high percentage, individuals with a disability and their families are typically even more vulnerable and less likely to be prepared for a disaster. Historically, those with disabilities are disproportionately affected by disasters, making it even more important for these individuals to prepare.
The most frequently cited reasons for the disparity between the need for preparedness and preparedness activities are lack of time or resources, and the perception that the task is large and intimidating.
Advocacy groups and community service providers have begun to raise awareness about the importance of emergency preparedness planning. Many private and government agencies have created helpful checklists for items to pack in emergency “go- kits.” The checklists, which are a good way to begin your household preparedness activities, can be found online (www.Ready.gov, for example) or provided by the agencies directly.
In addition to these checklists, consider the following key principles of emergency preparedness, which are especially pertinent to households that include individuals with a disability:
1. Do your homework.
Just as every person and every household is unique, so is every community. A thorough
understanding of the risks and resources in a community can maximize outcomes and help direct planning and preparedness efforts. When beginning preparedness planning, collect information such as threats to your community; evacuation routes and shelter locations nearby; the nearest hospitals and clinics; school, day program or employer emergency plans for places where household members spend time; voluntary groups and organizations that are active in the community; and identify the accommodation needs of household members, service animals and pets.
2. Include the individual with a disability in all preparedness activities.
Disasters can happen at any time and an individual with a disability may experience the disaster when alone or may become separated during the disaster. In addition, individuals with a disability are the foremost experts on their abilities, needs and desires and can provide key information on what preparedness plans and activities would work best for them. Each person in the household should have their own preparedness plan, participate in the development of the plan, and have the opportunity to practice their plan with others. This may mean helping to pack their personal preparedness kit and knowing where their kit is kept, the household evacuation and reunification plan, and who to call.
3. Each person’s kit should be personalized for their unique needs.
When assisting individuals to prepare their kit, special attention should be taken to identify the particular items each person may need to maintain their health, independence, resources and comfort to the greatest extent possible. This may mean including things such as medication lists, important contact numbers, specific personal or communication information, accommodations and equipment needed (such as hearing aid batteries, extra glasses, walking cane, inhalers, etc.), and comfort or mental health items (such as a favorite book, a familiar game, photos of loved ones, etc).
4. Communicate to prepare, and prepare to communicate.
Communication with friends and neighbors is a very important part of personal and household preparedness. Responder agencies all agree that the first responder to any situation is the family, friends and neighbors. A critical part of a preparedness plan for individuals with a disability is to establish local relationships and “natural supports.” This can be as simple as exchanging contact information and important facts of how best to help the other person.
Communicating this same information with first responders is another important part of the planning process. One way to assist individuals with a disability to communicate with first responders is include an “about me” information sheet in their preparedness kit. This might include the names and pictures of family or household members, important contact numbers, medication and dosage list, information on needed accommodations, and effective or ineffective communication techniques.
5. Practice the plan together.
In order for each person to be prepared, practice is essential. Familiarity with the plans through practice can alleviate fears and stress, empower individuals, and teach skills that can be applied to daily life. It is essential that each member of the household participate in large and small practice opportunities. These can be full-scale simulated events or individual and household conversations that review where kits are kept, who would be called and where each person would go.
The most effective practice experiences are those that are incorporated into real life daily situations and may be as simple as asking “What would you do if [emergency] happened right now?”
Effective preparedness planning for individuals with a disability and their households is not a large investment of time and resources performed by a few people. Rather, it is the incorporation of small changes into daily life and a perspective of inclusive personal empowerment in all circumstances, focusing on the skills, abilities and needs of each person.