Effective Emergency Management: Making Improvements for Communities and People with Disabilities
Excerpted From the National Council on Disability Report

Executive Summary

The challenges faced by people with disabilities in disaster-threat situations have been made clear through events such as September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the wildfires in Southern California. Specific problems with warning transmission and receipt, transportation, evacuation, shelter, and long-term recovery have been documented through research studies, and noted in Government Accountability Office reports, by the U.S. Congress and the White House, and by the National Council on Disability. Fortunately, the nation seems poised at a critical turning point, with greater determination than ever to move forward in reducing disasters and building capacities of those at risk. To support this trend, this report assesses scientific studies of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts, and recommends practical, policy, and research initiatives that would maintain and expand this promising momentum. The report is divided into three segments:

  • The Life Cycle of Comprehensive Emergency Management. Seven chapters review and discuss findings for a variety of hazards and the four main phases of emergency management activity: preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation.
  • Emergency Managers and Voluntary Organizations. The importance of connecting these two sets of resources is discussed, along with strategies to build capacities and leverage resources for people with disabilities in harm’s way.
  • Promising Practices. A final section outlines the implications of the empirical research assessment for the practice of disaster management for people with disabilities, identifies promising initiatives, reveals trends in policy and practice, and provides a comprehensive set of interventions for the present Administration as well as federal agencies, state and local government, and individuals.


Summary of Key Findings

NCD intends this report to be a compendium of knowledge about the challenges faced by people with disabilities in disaster situations. A lack of evidenced-based knowledge about how best to organize preparedness, response, and recovery efforts undermines efforts to reduce vulnerabilities. Consequently, what we know about the experiences of people with disabilities and disability organizations stems from a compilation of scientific studies, technical reports, after-action reports, and guidance documents. Many are of recent origin.

Preparedness efforts—including education and training, planning, designing warning systems, and evacuation protocols—is the area where most work has been conducted. Still, many emergency managers and people with disabilities remain unprepared for a disaster, in part because of the extra burden placed on minimal staff or the already difficult circumstances of many people with disabilities. Further, despite mandates to do so, most disaster planning occurs without the consultation or participation of people with disabilities or disability organizations. This report calls for greater inclusion of these key stakeholders in all types of preparedness efforts to push forward the necessary work that must be done.

Response remains problematic in part because of the clear lack of research validating best practices. This is especially troublesome for search and rescue of people with disabilities. When people with disabilities are remembered, such as with warnings, they are often grouped into one homogeneous population and provided with instructions that are not appropriately communicated or that are impossible to follow. Considerations for the special needs of residents in nursing homes, transportation for those who lack personal vehicles, search and rescue procedures that aid people with disabilities, and both general population and functional needs shelters that can accommodate disabilities are all issues that must continue to be addressed with the disability community and then put into practice by emergency management professionals.

Recovery is an area in which minimal research is available, particularly in the area of disabilities and disasters. Reports, testimony, and other evidence clearly suggest that recovery is drawn out and problematic for people with disabilities. Problems with securing accessible temporary housing, failure of insurance to cover disability-specific needs and gaps in federal assistance, loss of access to health care, and disruption to caregiver networks all undermine the abilities of people with disabilities to return home.

Mitigation efforts represent the single best strategy to reduce the impacts of disasters. Such measures may involve securing items within a household or construction of a large safe room. However, such efforts appear to be minimal at best across the nation. Efforts to redress this situation require the involvement of voluntary organizations to mitigate risk at the household level, as well as federal mandates to involve people with disabilities in mitigation planning, revision of guidance documents to increase accessibility in safe rooms, and funding to provide disability-specific mitigation measures.

Emergency managers and voluntary organizations often work side by side in a disaster context to provide relief and recovery assistance. Yet these same key resources often remain distant from people with disabilities and disability organizations. This report calls for greater connectedness among emergency management and the full range of voluntary organizations, including disability organizations, agencies, and advocates. Such collaboration can make a difference by leveraging collective resources to solve the problems faced by people with disabilities in a disaster situation.

Summary of Key Interventions

The Obama Administration

The Obama Administration agenda provides a number of compatible areas through which transformative change could occur. Key initiatives to launch such change include the following:

  • Convening a Disabilities and Disasters White House Summit that includes government and nongovernment organizations, including disability organizations and leaders.
  • Appointing and empowering a permanent staff position to handle only disability-related matters inside the White House, including issues on disasters and disabilities.
  • Funding capacity-building programs that tap community-based organizations linked to and actively involving people with disabilities in disaster preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities.
  • Involving disability organizations with expertise in disaster management in the President’s Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
  • Viewing the exclusion of disability issues in emergency management as a civil rights issue.
  • Ensuring that health care remains available, accessible, and affordable after a disaster, including providing additional funds through Medicare Part D for lost medications and additional resources for health care support.
  • Offering tax incentives for preparedness and mitigation measures at the household level as well as for businesses that significantly enhance their evacuation planning, signage, and procedures for customers and employees with disabilities.

President Obama’s agenda also coincides with funding initiatives in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Strategies to leverage that funding for disaster and disability issues could include the following:

  • Funding affordable housing with more accessible features and mitigation measures, such as safe rooms.
  • Strengthening America’s infrastructure with accessible transportation features that increase evacuation options, as well as stronger levees and dams that mitigate risk for populations unable to evacuate easily.
  • Applying homeland security and emergency management funds toward increased protection of people with disabilities, through funds for Public Transportation Security Assistance, Port Security, and Railroad Security Assistance. This might include evacuation planning, accessible seating and pathways, evacuation devices, warning systems for a diverse range of disabilities, and training of first responders in disability issues.
  • Connecting reconstruction projects to efforts in schools that afford greater preparedness and mitigation of local hazards, including attention to state schools that support people with disabilities, as these are often key locations of postdisaster support for residents as well as for the larger community.

Federal Recommendations

  • Continue strengthening efforts to enforce compliance with Federal Communications Commission (FCC) policies regarding emergency broadcasting to reach people with disabilities.
  • Complete the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Comprehensive Planning Guide (CPG) series—including 301 Special Needs and 302, which includes service animals—in sync with other CPG series guides.
  • Hire disability coordinators at the FEMA regional offices.
  • Fund research streams that push forward scientific evidence of best practices for disaster management and disabilities.
  • Establish a national clearinghouse for disability and disaster information and resources organized to meet the needs of emergency managers and disability organizations.
  • Involve disability organizations and people with disabilities in federal exercises, after-action reports, and federally funded recovery planning.
  • Expand disaster recovery funding to cover disability issues, including health care disruption, loss of durable medical equipment and assistive devices, caregiver support expenses, service animals, transportation costs, and additional expenses arising from living in temporary housing.
  • Revise FEMA guidance materials for safe room construction to include disability access; fund mitigation projects that target people with disabilities.
  • Enhance accessibility features in federal buildings to strengthen evacuation planning, evacuation devices, and warning systems.

State-Level Interventions

  • Task a state official with disability and disaster issues.
  • Involve disability community organizations and state offices or agencies in all state efforts regarding natural hazards, terrorism, technological or hazardous materials concerns, and pandemic planning.
  • Conduct disability training for first responders.
  • Strengthen code requirements for public places, including alternative warning systems and signage.
  • Conduct evacuation planning for all state offices, to include people with disabilities. Require exercises and debriefings that involve people with disabilities.
  • Develop recovery plans before disaster strikes that address disability issues.
  • Establish state task forces on disaster housing that are consistent with the new National Disaster Housing Strategy and that involve disability organizations.

Local-Level Interventions

  • Local jurisdictions should create working groups to review and revise emergency operations plans, mitigation plans, and recovery plans to address the issues of people with disabilities. Special attention should be paid to warning systems, evacuation planning and other protective actions, shelters, and temporary housing.
  • Cross-training on disability and disaster issues should be conducted among emergency managers, first responders, voluntary agencies, and disability agencies.
  • Funding should be secured to launch preparedness and mitigation programs that address the safety of people with disabilities.

Individual-Level Interventions

  • Accept personal responsibility for preparedness in a disaster context; where that is challenging, involve caregivers in such efforts.
  • Create contingency plans for evacuation and other protective action, shelter life, medical care, and service animals. Purchase insurance, implement mitigation measures, and set aside personal funds to offset the impact of disaster.
  • Be alert for warnings and actively seek information on recommended responses; be prepared to take action.
  • Advocate for people with disabilities with local emergency managers.