Friday, 17 August 2012

Disability and Emergency Preparedness: Some Thoughts

I have a friend who actually does a lot of work in the emergency preparedness area, and who has been a part of the teams assisting people with disabilities in emergencies infinitely more serious than the one I encountered last night. But a night in the dark in my apartment building was definitely enough to make me think about emergency preparedness and about how much more vulnerable people with disabilities and chronic health conditions are in emergency situations...including myself, because my emergency preparedness plan simply isn't good enough.

Emergencies in My Apartment Building

Due to the demographics in my area and the nature of my apartment building, most of the residents are seniors. Some are in very good health and, like me, require very little support to live in the building. Some aren't in such good health, and rely on a lot of medical home supports and other community supports and/or support from family and friends to remain living independently.  The management helps as much as they can by making sure that people sure that have lots of notice for events like maintenance work in the building and community (including planned power outages that are going to last for several hours) to make plans.

Of course, not every power outage is planned. But  the unplanned ones rarely last long. Our hydro crews, for all our complaining, are very good at getting things back on track quickly. However, whatever knocked out our power last night did an especially good job - it was out from 8 pm last night to 4:30 am this morning.

Emergency Preparedness - I Need a Better Plan

My normal emergency preparedness plan for a situation like last night's is to read until it gets too dark and then go to sleep until the power comes back on. But this time I was acutely aware of a few things:

  • I'd been on the phone long-distance with a friend who was possibly going to be worried that I'd suddenly disappeared. I don't have a cel phone. I couldn't email her, because my modem was, of course, not working. I couldn't even call her if I could track down a phone that worked, because her number was trapped in *my* phone, and I wasn't sure I had it written down anywhere else.

  • Going to my father's was out of the question - how was I going to call him?  I've only been without a cel phone for about a year, and feeling as cut off as I did last night was absolutely unnerving.

  • I couldn't find my flashlight and it was getting dark.

I ventured out into the lounge after a bit to see if anyone was around who'd heard anything about when the power was coming back on. I was able to use someone's cel phone to leave my father a message with my friend's email address, asking him to email her and let her know that I was okay. And I realized that other people were having emergency preparedness issues too.

Emergency Preparedness - When Things are Unplanned

A woman sitting in the lounge had come down earlier in the elevator to visit with friends. She was now stuck in the lounge until her daughter could get over there (and she wasn't sure when that was going to be) to help her get herself and her oxygen tank back up the dark stairs.

As I talked to her, I found myself starting to wonder about other people in the building with health problems, and what their emergency preparedness plans were. We knew by now that it would be a while before the crews could get the power on. What if it stretched into tomorrow? I knew that the management would bring by bottled water for drinking, but people would need to start flushing toilets...the nurses would need water for medical treatments...without the elevator in service, some people wouldn't be able to get out of the I continued to think, I got more and more anxious about the prospect of prolonged power shortage.

In my own apartment a bit later, there was still enough light that I easily changed my clothes and went to bed. But when the cats got me up later in the night for food (I don't know how much later because my digital clocks weren't working and my IPod wasn't charged), I had the treat of trying to navigate my apartment with no light at all. Not safe. Not smart of me, to misplace my flashlight.

Important Things to Consider

How would I have handled all this a few years ago, when I was considerably less mobile?  I don't know that I even have a first aid kit if I fell now and hurt myself...
How would I have handled this if I'd had an intellectual disability and my support person wasn't coming in until morning?

If you're supporting people in these situations, you need to consider if you/your agency has an adequate, understandable (for you/staff and for the person) plan in place for each individual.  Don't wait until it happens and try to cobble something together then.

And...what's *your* emergency plan? Is your level of emergency preparedness acceptable?

Canadian Red Cross article on Emergency Preparedness kits:


  1. A couple of weeks ago we had a power outage here where we live after a small storm. It wasn't too damaging but the power was out between 930pm - 4am. The worst part was that it was extremely hot. I am very prepared with flashlights, first aid kit and emergency numbers. When you spoke of your dilemma because of no phone, it made me think of my mom, who lives with me. I do have a cell phone and we also have a land line; but my mom has Aphasia from her brain injury and has difficulties speaking and gets easily confused. I have my sister's cell and my cell numbers in large print on a peg board for her for emergencies if she is alone, but I think your story goes to show that you can never take too many cautions to be prepared for an emergency.

  2. In the USA in the event of a disaster people with a disability are out of luck. We are at the bottom of the priority list. When you read official disaster relief procedures it is a shock. The last hurricane to hit NYC revealed most shelter were grossly inaccessible and even those that were had locked accessible entrance ways.

  3. The strategy with the peg board is the sort of thing I'm talking about in terms of developing a plan that everyone understands, Mark. That's a great idea. And thank goodness that heat wasn't really a concern on the night that the power went out here - there have been some nights this summer when it certainly would have been.

  4. William, that's terrible. It makes me wonder about the disaster relief procedures here in Canada. Given Bloomberg's ignorant responses to queries about the accessible taxi issue, I don't see that situation in NYC changing while he's in office. I'd love to give the man more credit, but he's lost my trust when it comes to accessibility issues.