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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Best Practices in Building Relationships in Emergency Management

Disasters, both natural and manmade, can strike anywhere at any time. Individuals with disabilities are disproportionately affected by disaster. Centers for Independent Living, Statewide Independent Living Councils, and Independent Living Associations are often uniquely qualified to provide an array of services to individuals with disabilities in preparation before, as well as during and after, disaster in their local area. While your area may not have been impacted by a disaster, climate change makes the possibility increasingly likely.

The National Council on Independent Living Emergency Planning and Response Subcommittee is composed of NCIL members who take a great interest in the issue of individuals with disabilities affected by disaster. Many of the members are actively involved in disaster planning and response within the disability community, and have provided disaster relief to individuals with disabilities for a number of years. Most of us became interested following a disaster that directly impacted our areas and consumers we served. We offer the following examples of how CILs, SILCs and ILAs throughout the country have become involved with their local emergency management and affected systems change to ensure that individuals with disabilities are provided an equal level of service in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery.

California – The Community Access Center has been a part of the Riverside VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters) since its inception. The Systems Change Advocate and Community Organizer for the CIL sits on the VOAD Board and serves as its Treasurer. This involvement and collaboration with the VOAD has made it much easier to form relationships with other non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Office of Emergency Services, RACES, ARES, and many others. Emergency preparation and training is the key function during non-incident times.

Mississippi – Living Independence For Everyone (LIFE) of Mississippi had eight offices in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast. All eight offices were affected by the storm, either by wind, water or power failure, or mass sheltering of people in their areas. Barriers included lack of communication statewide, and LIFE staff were refused access to shelters while attempting to offer assistance to individuals with disabilities residing in the shelters. In the intervening years, LIFE staff had made a concerted effort to become involved in their local emergency management systems by: participating in Red Cross training; providing training to first responders and emergency managers; developing relationships with the MS Emergency Management Agency (who has just hired a Disability Integration Advisor) and emergency coordinating officers of the State EM agency (MEMA), the MS Department of Rehabilitation Services, The MS Department of Human Services and the MS State Department of Health and; serving on task forces and committees planning emergency preparedness, response, and recovery. The specific issues of the disability community are finally recognized and addressed. 

West Virginia – The Appalachian Center for Independent Living has assisted in forming and becoming a part of a network of emergency management teams that includes the WV VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Assisting in Disasters), the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee and the Charleston Department of Health, the WV Division of Public Health, Ready WV, the WV Office of Behavioral Health Services and the Arc of WV. As a result of this involvement, the CIL has presented at FEMA conferences and the WV Disaster Summit, provided education to first responders at the WV Public Safety Conference and collaborate with the WV State Department of Education to develop emergency response guidelines. The CIL staff, with assistance from emergency management, first responders, and industry, has developed a communications program for those with communication barriers, using an application called Tap to Talk. This project won the FEMA Innovative Technology Award and the White House Champions of Change Award in 2014.

Washington – Center for Independence successfully advocated for the creation of a new position within the WA-SILC of an Inclusive Planner for WA State (likely the first position of its kind in the country).The CIL Independent Living Educator has worked closely with this individual as well as the Region 10 Coordinator for FEMA’s Office of Disability Integration and Coordination and the Disability Access and Functional Needs Coordinator for Pierce County, WA to develop language to be incorporated into the WA State Plan for Independent Living. They have all worked successfully with their VOADs throughout WA, noting that each community in the region has a unique method of garnering support for emergencies from community members and organizations, thus the importance of building relationships with key community groups and organizations.

MASTTF – Multi-agency Shelter Transition Task Force – These groups will be formed as needed in shelters. The group will consist of FEMA, individuals assistants, voluntary agency liaisons, Red Cross casework, hopefully staff from CIL’s, perhaps Catholic Charities, HUD, the VA and others as needed to work together as a team. Each day brought additional resources and people to talk to shelter residents about barriers they were facing to getting out of the shelter (people with and without disabilities). Bringing everyone to the table at one time so that people could get connected with the right resources helped tremendously in efforts to re-locate them and ensure they had the services they needed. This worked well in Louisiana after the recent flooding and FEMA plans to continue this effort in other areas as needed.

The Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee continues their efforts to recognize best practices in disability integration of emergency management and work toward full inclusion of individuals with disabilities in all areas of emergency management on local, state and national levels. We highly encourage CILs and SILCs to develop relationships with their local emergency managers now before disaster hits their service area and they and their constituents are adversely affected. The Building Relationships Timeline below can help.

Building Relationships with Local Emergency Management

November, 2014

Emergency Planning Subcommittee

National Council on Independent Living (NCIL)

Step 1: Identify

  • Start with your State Emergency Management & Response Agency, then find city, county/parish agencies.
  • Locate volunteer agencies i.e., VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters), CERT (Certified Emergency Response Team), LEPC(Local Emergency Planning Committee) , Red Cross, Salvation Army, faith based and non-government organizations.
  • Find out who your Disability Integration Advisor is with FEMA
  • Compile a list

Step 2: Get Acquainted

  • Review available information for each identified agency to determine their set up & operation, including, and especially, how they handle emergencies for people with disabilities
  • Tap into any social media offered, Facebook, newsletters, list serves, twitter and others and sign up to receive any alerts and information
  • Contact each by phone or email & schedule a casual meeting (lunch, coffee) w/ the Director or their designee
  • Attend training sessions offered by the agency

Step 3: Schedule Meetings

  • Determine if the entities have regularly scheduled meetings and/or task forces you can be involved in
  • Let them know how they can become actively involved in your CIL or SILC
  • Determine if they offer emergency preparedness/response training & how the CIL/people w/ disabilities can get involved

Step 4: Get Involved

  • To ensure disability inclusion: Take any training they offer to the public and attend meetings and conferences when possible
  • Participate in training offered by your state EMA or FEMA to learn more about various topics
  • Offer training to them that the CIL provides, i.e., disability awareness & inclusion

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