Thinking ahead and having a plan ready to go when heading for a safe location is a must.
Whether it’s a hurricane, flood, wildfire or other natural disaster, one of the first steps authorities take to keep the public safe is an evacuation.
Trying to get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible is difficult for most people, but those with spinal-cord injuries (SCI) face even tougher challenges. They generally require assistance and more time to reach safety.
Thinking ahead and having a plan ready to go when heading for a safe location is a must. Organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the American Red Cross have published guides specifically for people with disabilities.
The guides provide checklists and other information on how to successfully prepare for an evacuation and are available for download (fema.gov or redcross.org).
Do You Have a Plan?
Despite the availability of information, there is limited research on how prepared wheelchair users are for an evacuation. This makes it difficult to understand how to most effectively improve preparedness.
Researchers at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL) at the University of Pittsburgh investigated evacuation readiness in individuals with SCI.
They asked specific questions related to evacuation plans from different locations. Their results found about 64% of respondents claimed to have an evacuation plan from home, 80% from where they work and 32% from their towns or cities. Researchers say the survey shows more individuals with SCI need to have evacuation plans in place.
Having an evacuation plan is only one small part of the preparation process.
Each plan must anticipate how to avoid immediate danger and, more importantly, how to survive in the time after the evacuation with limited food, water, assistance and supplies.
Items such as transportation, medical supplies and documents and places to stay after the evacuation are a few of the things to include in a successful evacuation plan.
A personal support network such as a group of friends, family and co-workers who can assist in an emergency is also vital.
HERL took its study deeper to see what items people with SCI did or didn’t include in their plans. Researchers contacted the individuals who reported having an evacuation plan and asked them for details.
The Right Stuff
After analyzing each conversation, they consolidated checklists provided by FEMA and the Red Cross into 10 common themes that represent a quality evacuation plan, including:
- Escape route: How will you get out of immediate danger? -
- Personal support network communication: How will you plan and communicate with personal care assistants, family and co-workers before and after the emergency?
- Supply kit: Do you have enough cash, medication, food, water, clothing, etc. needed for an extended period of time?
- Transportation: What method of transportation will be used to evacuate the area?
- Assistance: What type of assistance will you need and will you be able to use it?
- Vital records and documents: Did you plan to bring records such as prescriptions and insurance information if medication or medical services are needed?
- Meeting place/temporary shelter: Where will you relocate to be safe from danger during and after the emergency?
- Detailed directions to emergency personnel: Can you enact your plan on a moment’s notice and provide concise instructions to emergency personnel?
- Practice your plan.
More Work Needed
Results showed the individuals who said they had an evacuation plan weren’t as prepared as they thought they were.
The median number of items each person mentioned in his or her plans was three out of 10 for both home and town/city evacuations. The most commonly forgotten things were communication with personal support networks, supplies, vital records and practice.
One of the most important elements to an individual’s plan is communication with personal support networks. These are the people who can assist in the event of an emergency or help plan for an evacuation.
Personal support networks should be created at any location where a lot of time is spent, such as school, work or home. Describing how to use assistive devices in the event the person is unable to use them and practicing the plan to make sure all points in the checklist are covered are also important.
The bottom line: even though people with SCI face unique obstacles in evacuating to safety, the playing field can be leveled given the proper preparation.
For more information on the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, visit herl.pitt.edu.
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