Emergency Planning for and with People with Functional Needs

By Cheryl Killam

According to a Nationwide Plan Review conducted in spring 2006, states still fall short in emergency planning for and with individuals with special needs. This was reiterated in the national assessment of the country’s catastrophic planning capabilities conducted by the Department of Homeland Security and issued June 2006. The assessment found that although most of the country is reasonably well prepared to handle a disaster situation, there are certain areas (for example, evacuation, command structure, resource management and populations with special needs) that require a significant amount of attention.

Although no standard definition for “special needs" populations exists, there is an interest among individuals, organizations and service agencies to move beyond using the category “special needs" to using a more effective, accurate description based on the functional needs of individuals. To say that someone has a “functional need" implies that he or she, under usual circumstances, is able to function on their own or with support systems. However during an emergency, their level of independence is challenged.

Since late June 2006, representatives from New Hampshire’s (NH) Department of Safety – Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM) and the Department of Health and Human Services have actively engaged other state agencies in establishing a committee to address emergency planning for and with individuals with functional needs. One of the first tasks undertaken by the committee was to provide a working conference of the Emergency Support Function (ESF) primary and secondary support agencies. This one-day conference explored the issues of preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation pertaining to emergency planning for individuals with special needs.

Based upon the feedback from the state agency working conference, it was agreed to adopt the terms “individuals with functional needs." The definition includes but is not limited to: some senior citizens; people with disabilities; people who are non-English speakers; people who are culturally or geographically isolated; people with substance abuse issues; people who are homeless, marginally housed or shelter dependent; people with chronic medical conditions; children with special circumstances; people living in poverty; tourists and visitors; illegal residents; and single-parent households.

The second task was to develop a NH Functional Needs Guidance to support the State Emergency Operations Plan (EOP). The State EOP framework has been adopted by many New Hampshire towns and municipalities. It provides local government with a structure to initiate, coordinate and sustain an effective local response to disasters and emergency situations. Citizens expect their state and local government to keep them informed and to provide assistance in the event of an emergency or disaster. All levels of government, working closely with the private sector, share the responsibility to include the needs and talents of individuals with a full range of functional abilities in the emergency management process. Preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation planning requires the capacity to reach every person, including those with functional needs.

In March of 2007, Governor Lynch accepted the NH Functional Needs Guidance, a preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation framework for improving, accommodating and assisting individuals with everyday functions in an emergency. The Guidance was developed by representatives from the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Governor’s Commission on Disability, Health and Human Services (including Elderly and Adult Services; Children, Youth and Families Services; Behavioral Health; Juvenile Justice; Homeless and Housing; Office of Minority Health), Department of Corrections, the State Veterinarian, the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, the American Red Cross, National Alliance on Mental Illness – NH, the Community Action Program and HSEM.

As a “living document," the Guidance continues to be updated. The state committee continues to meet and has established three working groups to address the following areas in more detail: Alert and Notification, Functional and Medical Needs Shelters and Resource Management. Membership on the committee and working groups has expanded to include local planners and various subject matter experts. The committee is planning a second working conference for later this spring. It will focus on the activities of the three working groups and bring together local planners, key community and faith-based organizations, service industries and state agencies.

Five Ways to Plan for and with Individuals with Functional Needs
Title II, Part A of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states: “No qualified individual with a disability shall, on the basis of disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any public entity."

In addition, it also requires that a “public entity shall take appropriate steps to ensure that communications with applicants, participants, and members of the public with disabilities are as effective as communications with others."

1. Determine the Demographics of the Community. Define functional needs populations who reside in the community. Select up to five broad categories of population descriptors to start a planning process.

2. Identify Key Contacts. Obtain names and contact information for direct service providers and advocacy organizations that work with functional needs populations, such as faith-based organizations, home-healthcare providers, meals-on-wheels, etc. Some of the state and local agencies that may be of assistance include the: Developmental Disabilities Council, Area Agencies, Governor’s Commission on Disability, Granite State Independent Living, Northeast Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services, NH Association for the Blind, NH Brain Injury Foundation, Community Action Programs, Community Mental Health Centers and NH Office of Minority Health.

3. Facilitate Discussions. Find out the barriers and needs of individuals in the community; for example, ask people in advance what type of accommodations they need to participate in meetings. Hold meetings in accessible facilities. Invite individuals with functional needs to participate in emergency planning. Get the community involved in providing accommodations. Offer information in various formats. Be available after the meeting to answer questions, as some people are more comfortable speaking one-to-one.

4. Coordinate Outreach. Sponsor public information sessions on family and self-preparedness that includes a dialogue concerning people with functional needs. Engage the community in educational programs to help get individuals and communities prepared. Involve people with functional needs in exercises and drills. Disseminate preparedness materials with community and faith-based organizations. Provide NH 9-1-1 Supplemental Automatic Location Information (S-ALI) forms for residents to provide information about permanent medical conditions or hazardous materials specific to their location or address. This form is available by contacting NH Emergency Services at 603.271.6911.

5. Develop a Registry. Defining functional needs populations is an ongoing process, as the people and their needs and vulnerabilities change over time. Consult with local emergency management officials and the agencies/organizations who work with functional needs populations to determine the best approach for identifying persons who may need individualized assistance in the event of an emergency. This information should be updated whenever necessary and at least once a year.

State Functional Needs Committee members are available to meet with local officials and provide planning assistance. The best resources for accommodating people with functional needs are found by asking those who have functional needs who live in your town or city. An extensive resource list is provided in the New Hampshire Functional Needs Guidance – Support Document to the State Emergency Operations Plan, available online at http://www.nh.gov/safety/divisions/bem/documents/nh_functional_needs_guidance.pdf.

Cheryl Killam is Accessibility Specialist with the Governor’s Commission on Disability.