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

Suggested Language for State Plans for Independent Living (SPIL) Regarding 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.

Following these examples, is suggested language that could be included in State Plans for Independent Living to ensure that the state Independent Living programs can and will be allowed to provide emergency services, if necessary, in their local areas. We understand that many CILs, SILCs and ILAs may not have the capacity, funding, or staffing to provide direct disaster relief to their communities. However, with involvement in mitigation and preparedness activities, our community can perhaps be better prepared and less impacted. We believe that this involvement is easily considered under the core service of advocacy and the community service of systems advocacy. Assistance offered to individual consumers during and after a specific disaster can be easily included in and counted as one or more of the five core services of independent living. 

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. The CIL serves on the VOAD to ensure that individuals with disabilities are included in every way, such as training for emergency responders. CIL staff and VOAD members have had FAST (Functional Assessment Service Team) training and provided other trainings and outreach events focused on people with access and functional needs.

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. Offices in Biloxi, Hattiesburg, McComb, Jackson and Meridian were directly impacted either by wind, water or power failure. The other three offices were impacted as the result of mass sheltering of people in their areas. The first barrier faced was the lack of communication between staff, not only because the CIL failed to have its own practiced emergency plan in place, but because communication statewide was down as a result of the storm. The second barrier faced was the refusal of access to shelters to the LIFE staff who were not personally affected but were attempting to offer assistance to individuals with disabilities residing in the shelters. This refusal was due to confidentiality policy and procedures of both governmental and non-governmental agencies. They didn’t know who the CIL was and therefore refused them entry. The CIL staff knew they were highly qualified to determine access and functional needs, but the people in charge did not. The CIL had durable medical equipment loan closets full of equipment that could have been valuable to individuals who had fled the storm without theirs. However, in several cases, they were refused to be allowed to help. In the intervening years, LIFE staff had made a concerted effort to become involved in their local emergency management culture. Many of the staff participated in Red Cross training, either in classes or on-line, and became certified Red Cross volunteers for their local community. This prevented the shelter managers from denying their assistance. LIFE met with emergency managers 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 requested to be included in task forces and committees planning emergency preparedness, response and recovery. These relationships led to LIFE serving on the State Task Force appointed by the Governor and charged with the development of the State Emergency Operations Plan. For the first time, the specific issues of the disability community were recognized and addressed. These relationships eventually led to LIFE being asked to provide training to MS Medical Corps volunteers, a Letter of Agreement with the local Red Cross Chapter which is leading to training of Red Cross Volunteers as well as CIL staff conducting accessibility surveys of their shelters before they are opened. The former director of the CILs has since retired and is on contract now with the MS Emergency Management Agency to serve as a Disability Integration Advisor when needed.

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. They provide education to first responders annually at the WV Public Safety Conference and collaborate with the WV State Department of Education to develop emergency response guidelines. Through the WV Disability Caucus they encourage the disability community to become involved in their Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC) to bring about change in the mind set of emergency managers and planners. In addition, the CIL Training Specialist is the Training Chair for the Kanawha Putnam Emergency Planning Committee to ensure that individuals with Access and Functional Needs are included in response plans. The CIL’s staff members, with assistance from emergency management, first responders, and industry, have 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.

The following is suggested language that can be included in a SPIL to ensure that independent living programs have the encouragement and tools needed to provide emergency management and response services inclusive of individuals with disabilities.

Objective 1: Ensure emergency managers, CIL, SILC and ILA staff and people with disabilities have access to disability specific planning and preparedness resources.

Activity 1.1: Identify and or implement online materials to develop an organizational emergency plan for the CIL, SILC and/or ILA to ensure that staff members are fully prepared and steps have been taken to facilitate communication among staff in the event of an emergency and that offices, including consumer information, are well protected in the event of an emergency.

Activity 1.2: Identify and/or implement online materials for use by CILs or other service providers to educate people with disabilities about being prepared in a disaster. This will include information for consumers that increases their knowledge regarding access to available services during and after a disaster as well as information on preparedness, such as how to make an emergency plan and kit.

Objective 2: Build disability inclusion into all aspects of emergency management through partnerships with local and state emergency management.

Activity 2.1: Locate and or develop, if necessary, an annual work plan collaborating with federal, state, and local agencies to coordinate, educate and conduct outreach efforts regarding emergency preparedness. Ensure that the State Emergency Preparedness Plan is inclusive of people with disabilities by becoming actively involved in local and state emergency management. Provide disability-related input to the State Emergency Management Division and to other county or local governmental and non-governmental agencies (e.g., VOADs, Red Cross, Salvation Army, faith based organizations) responsible for emergency preparedness and response. Involvement with planning and response activities should be reported to the SILC quarterly. Promote independent living participation in local and state emergency planning, preparedness and response activities such as work groups and task forces developed to address emergency management and response.

Activity 2.2: Either coordinate a cross disability advisory group to state emergency management or ensure participation from the disability community in such a group. The advisory group fosters communication and working relationships among emergency managers and state and local disability service, support and advocacy staff who are disability subject matter experts and are local people who can advise emergency managers during steady state and disaster response to include people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in: planning (emergency operations plans) processes; response (accessible emergency evacuation, sheltering and emergency messaging/communication); recovery (long-term recovery group leadership, membership and local citizen involvement; mitigation (infrastructure requirements for people with disabilities); and protection.

The SILC will support and provide guidance for the above outcomes and goals, to ensure continuing development of Inclusive Emergency Planning, Response and Recovery in the State.


Developed by: The National Council on Independent Living Emergency Planning Subcommittee

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