Getting It Right for Everyone
Applying inclusive emergency preparedness to wildfire mitigation planning
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2013
Last summer, the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado prompted the evacuation of more than 32,000 people in the region. A month after the fire was contained, a pair of local organizations that support people with disabilities, The Independence Center and the Rocky Mountain ADA Center, held a public forum and conducted online surveys to collect information on accessibility barriers encountered during the fire.
Their report, “Summary of Findings: Waldo Canyon Fire Forum for People with Disabilities” (available at theindependencecenter.org under “advocacy”), highlights issues that arose and offers suggestions from people with disabilities on how to better plan for emergencies.
Obstacles to efficient evacuations encountered by people with disabilities focused primarily on communication, transportation, and access to safe evacuation shelters. Examples include a lack of live captioning and American Sign Language interpreters in shelters; limited or no information on television stations accessible by the deaf community; confusion over the difference between pre-evacuation and evacuation; a lack of information on air quality conditions for those with breathing issues; no emergency communication plans for home health care staff; canceled or altered transportation schedules for riders with disabilities; problems with transporting heavy medical equipment; and the need for better accommodations at shelters for those with mobility disabilities.
Some of the proposed solutions, echoed by other disaster preparedness research, include contracting interpreters ahead of time and preparing them for emergencies; offering multiple levels of communication during a disaster by providing emergency broadcast information in a universally acceptable format; incorporating social media as a communication tool; and increasing the level of collaboration between government agencies and local health care resources. The report’s summary emphasizes the importance of getting it right for people with disabilities both before and during an emergency. By doing so, everyone will have better access to information, and a better chance of being adequately prepared for an emergency.
This information focused specifically on the wildfire incident itself, but shouldn’t we also apply these findings to long-term pre- and post-disaster planning? Many city and county mitigation specialists, for example, have discovered that yard-clearing days are more effective when the municipality picks up the slash and debris piles — not because people are lazy, but simply because many suburban residents don’t have pickup trucks to haul the piles themselves.
Let’s apply that same mindset of inclusiveness to everything we do. What would our educational materials look like? Brochures and videos would be available in formats accessible to those with hearing or vision difficulty, as well as non-native English speakers.
Neighborhood programs would build in risk reduction activities that provide additional support to those with limited ability to trim tree branches or perform other home and yard maintenance tasks. Collaborative planning efforts such as those conducted through Community Wildfire Protection Plans would require that representatives with disabilities be included in the discussions on risk and evacuation.
We often make assumptions about what will be an effective means of outreach without the input of those involved. If we can ensure that our planning efforts consider and include all segments of our population, we will be that much closer to success. Lessons learned from emergency management must be used to help us rethink the outreach tools we create for long-term wildfire risk reduction efforts.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.