Friday, July 1, 2011

Planning for Emergencies and Disaster Response

On Wednesday morning, members of the National Consortium on the Coordination of Human Services Transportation engaged in a colloquium about emergency planning and disaster response, both in general and in particular regarding transportation, transportation providers, and transportation-challenged populations and areas. The speakers were Sheryl Gross-Glaser of the National Resource Center for Human Service Transportation Coordination (NRC) (a technical assistance center housed at the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA)), Virginia Dize and Jo Reed of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A), and Patricia Monaghan of the National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP).

To understand the different types and categorization of emergencies and disasters, and preparedness, a good concise guide is the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Introduction to All-Hazards Preparedness for Transit Agencies.

Never Introduce Yourself at the Disaster

"Never introduce yourself at the disaster" was a terrific soundbite from a recent FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) webinar. Richard Devylder, Senior Advisor for Accessible Transportation at the U.S. Department of Transportation, gave this advice. It is too late to be involved in planning for emergency response when disaster hits and even at the point where officials are looking for endorsement of a plan.

Early and Often Involvement

Unlike voting, involvement in emergency planning should be early and often, counsels Devylder (who did not refer to voting). Involvement while a plan is being crafted ensures that preparedness actively includes populations beyond those of average age and abilities.
[Central Park South yesterday was full with pedicabs, taxis, buses, cyclists and walkers (left out of the photograph).]

After Hurricane Katrina's disproportionate impact on older adults (47 percent of the people who died were 75 or older), area agencies on aging (AAAs) are participating in emergency preparedness by providing information, establishing partnerships, providing communications links, outreach and services in the event of a disaster. (More information about AAA participation in emergency preparedness and response is available in an N4A 2009 survey.)

Redundant and Universal Communication

Also mentioned during the webinar, which is not currently archived, was the wisdom of redundant communications in multiple formats and with attention paid to those with communication challenges, such as people with visual or auditory impairments. Information provided in visual updates, such as maps or information scrolled at the bottom of a screen, or announcements via radio or television, should be duplicated in other formats.
[A bus stop on Broadway, about 63rd St. The new shelters are chic, though not hi-tech like the Portland ones.]

Building in Redundancies for an Imperfect World

Since no one measure is perfect to identify and keep track of who will need assistance, transportation, health-related or otherwise, redundancy in identification and monitoring is necessary. No one system of determining need - before or during an emergency - will be completely accurate. There will be people who are injured or disoriented during a disaster who were perfectly well beforehand and who would not show up on a registry. Likewise, depending on time of day, many children who do not usually have transportation challenges would be unsupervised and in need of assistance.

For example, we discussed the value of registries for meeting the needs of transportation-challenged individuals. Both N4A and CTAA include the development and use of registries in their recommendations. A participant in the FEMA webinar, June Isaacson Kailes, Disability Policy Consultant/Associate Director at Western University in California, spoke against reliance on registries because she believes that they provide a false security to registrants, who assume that registering means that the government will be taking care of them, and they provide no service to those who fail to register, whether out of ignorance, distrust of the government, or privacy concerns.

Kailes recommends that governments assess what will be needed and in what amounts to keep people independent and in good health - wheelchairs, medications, vehicles, meals, health aides - based upon the demographics. Jo Reed of N4A described door hanger notification systems that residents can hang outside to indicate whether they are fine or need assistance. As Reed's door hangers suggest, notification of need can be inexpensive and will supplement whatever other monitoring or identification systems are in place.

The Model of AAAs

Other examples of AAA involvement in preparedness are :
* Florida's emergency communications network, its plans for people with disabilities and home health care, and its registries;
* Iowa's requirement that local transportation providers have emergency plans; and
* A rural Colorado area's designation of the AAA as the designated emergency transportation provider.

Numbers Speak

Jo Reed spoke about emergency planning findings in the 2011 Maturing of America survey of local governments, last performed in 2005. An exception to a general finding of lack of assessment and preparation for the greater number of older adults in the future was the tremendous increase in specialized training to handle older adult needs in emergencies. However, a smaller percentage of communities than in 2005 were planning for evacuations of older adults or had systems in place to track where older adults reside.

Patti Monaghan discussed the relevant RTAP products, two updated training resources. The highest attendance numbers for an RTAP webinar was the one held about its emergency procedures training, demonstrating the substantial interest in this topic. Patti also noted the current preparation of a TCRP handbook for emergency preparedness.


On the CTAA website is the Transportation and Emergency Preparedness Checklist, which organizes the planning and response measures that community, regional and state leaders, as well as stakeholders, should be paying attention to. Training and information are available for planning and response from the National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) resource center and the Incident Command System.

The NRC has an Emergency Preparedness and Response Bookshelf with resources that focus on populations with special needs. CTAA also maintains a webpage with emergency preparedness resources.

Emergency Procedures for Rural Transit Drivers - a training module.
Threat and Vulnerability Toolbox.

Personal Notes

Special thanks to Kelly Shawn of CTAA for his assistance in discussing important emergency preparedness issues and resources and thanks to Patti Monaghan for discussing RTAP's resources and Hal Morgan for bringing and discussing the FTA All-Hazards publication.

I have seen some disasters and potential disasters in New York, one of which was the blackout of 2003 that affected the whole Northeast. I visited an apartment house that was a naturally occurring retirement community. Many people could not get to their apartments and others could not walk down the stairs and to go out of the building. Staff and neighbors knocked on all doors, retrieved medications (some from apartments on the 20th floor and above), arranged for meals, and made people in their 80s and 90s comfortable for a night spent in the lobby. Most everyone else walked up the stairs to their apartments or spent the night elsewhere. I saw police officers calmly direct traffic on streets filled with both packed vehicles of all types and pedestrians (some barefoot and carrying their high heels). The Port Authority bus terminal recreated itself outside on 43rd Street.

Every disaster is unique, but what remains the same is that there are special challenges to getting through an emergency and its aftermath being older, living with a significant disability, or living in a rural community. Neighborliness, flexibility and ingenuity all have a place, but preparedness makes a big difference.

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