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May 2006

by Edith M. Prentiss

Despite the terrorism attacks on the World Trade Center, Madrid, and London, Iím more concerned with power outages, natural disasters and emergencies.

Emergency planning must be more than how much water you need and certainly more than what goes in a GO BAG. We need to focus on telephones that do not require electricity and networking in out buildings. Telling us not to use elevators and to plan on meeting on a specific corner is problematic. If youíre home how do you get out and if youíre out how do you get home? If you end up in a shelter, will it have the equipment and supplies you need?

In November 2004, the National Organization on Disability commissioned Harris Interactive to determine the degree to which jurisdictions included the needs of people with disabilities and also if people with disabilities were included in the emergency preparedness planning process. Harris found 69% said they had incorporated the needs and 22% reported a plan was in development. But only 42% included an informational campaign and only 16% were available in accessible formats.

The instructions posted by elevators simply say not to use them in case of fire and sometimes directs you to wait for further instructions. If youíre able to use the stairs finding them from the map can be confusing. And if you canít climb stairs, do you just wait to be found?

Recently, a settlement was announced in a suit against Marshalls department store requiring they adopt evacuation procedures for shoppers with disabilities. They became the first national retailer to agree to address the emergency evacuation needs of people with disabilities. The suit was brought by a shopper who exited into a basement level of a mall from which there was no accessible egress.

When the MTA tested the single operator L train, on the train were 100 MTA employees, three of whom were designated as people with disabilities. The 97 able bodied employee passengers were successfully evacuated, leaving behind the 3 individuals with special needs and the test was considered a success!

Several months ago, I was on a Long Island Railroad train that struck and killed a pedestrian. Other passengers were walked through the train, and put on buses to their destination while I waited. What if it had been a major blackout, would the conductor and I have sat on the train for a day or more?

A passenger with auditory and visual impairments was on a D train that was evacuated due to a fire. It was another passenger who noticed her sitting as the police evacuated them from the train. In that circumstance, what would a wheelchair using passenger do? I guess, the Fire Department would carry us out, but getting me out is only the first step, would they get us to the street and leave us there?

The first step is for emergency planners to include individuals with special needs in the dialogue, and that includes making sure the dialogue is accessible. Having a special need does not preclude your capacity to engage in the planning process and the process itself.