Federal agency calls for inclusive emergency preparedness plans

A graphic of an Emergency Preparedness Checklist
Effective Communication Can Save Lives During Emergencies

The National Council on Disability released an extensive report May 27, detailing the various ways that municipalities are failing to account for people with disabilities in their emergency preparedness plans.

“The concerns of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs in emergency situations are frequently overlooked, minimized or not even recognized until after the fact,” NCD Chair Jeff Rosen said in a news release. “Both research and anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that, to be truly effective, people with disabilities must be an integral part of emergency communication activities, before, during, and after an emergency or disaster, small or large, natural or manmade.

“Planning at the local level is absolutely essential and should be the bedrock of everything that comes after.”

The report focuses primarily on barriers to effective communication. In its investigation, the NCD found that most major cities contain inaccessible emergency notification systems, maps and websites. In addition, television announcements and shelters often lacked personnel, such as sign language interpreters, to provide communication assistance to people who are deaf or hard of hearing, or blind, or have other disabilities.

In addition to improving these systems, the NCD called for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission to create guidelines for municipalities to follow in making their systems more effective.

In recent years, multiple courts have found major cities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to take into account the needs of people with disabilities in their emergency systems.

In 2011, a federal court found that the city of Los Angeles’ emergency preparedness plan placed people with disabilities at disproportionate risk of suffering and death, and ordered it to hire independent experts to overhaul its system.

In November 2013, another federal court found extensive ADA violations regarding New York City’s emergency response plans, particularly in regard to its shelters, evacuation plans and communications systems.

“Effective communication is critical and can save lives during times of emergency,” the report stated. “It is NCD’s hope that the experiences of people with disabilities, proven strategies, and recommended practices detailed in this report will guide stakeholders as they work together to ensure inclusive emergency management practices.”

The NCD is an independent federal agency charged with advising Congress and the president on disability issues.