By Lisa DeGray
Intern, Disaster Accountability Project
(Lisa is a rising 2L at Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC)
Marcie Roth, Senior Advisor on Disability Issues and Director of the new FEMA Office of Disability Integration and Coordination (ODIC), testified on Tuesday, June 15, 2010 before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Communications, Preparedness, and Response panel on “Caring for Special Needs During Disasters: What’s being done for Vulnerable Populations?”
Perhaps the most significant point made during the hearing was that FEMA has not implemented a natural disaster plan for the disabled. Roth testified that while FEMA has researched a plan to evacuate and shelter disabled persons, it has yet to implement it as the ODIC faces serious budgetary and staffing shortfalls.
Roth testified that those with special needs as defined by the National Response Framework make up fifty percent of the U.S. population. Included in this definition are not only individuals with disabilities, but also such diverse groups as children, the elderly, and non-English speakers. Roth noted that the label “special needs” itself is problematic when it comes to community-wide emergency planning:
When people with disabilities are thought of as ‘special,’ they are often thought of as marginal individuals who have needs, not rights. People with that label appear to need things done for them as recipients, not participants. If people with disabilities are more thoroughly integrated in local planning, their participation will help ensure that misleading stereotypes do not dilute the effectiveness of emergency plans.
According to Roth, FEMA is working on integrating the needs of these vulnerable populations into community plans. Roth described Functional Needs Support Services (FNSS) including “reasonable modifications to shelter practices and procedures such as the planning for the inclusion of service animals, and also may include the acquisition or use of durable medical equipment, consumable medical supplies, personal assistance services, and other goods and services as needed.”
In terms of making emergency communications accessible to those with disabilities, Roth noted that the ODIC is collaborating with the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) Program Office stakeholders to “identify key resources and stakeholders that can facilitate improved emergency communications such as alerts and warnings.”
Examples of this collaboration include: “Leveraging Gallaudet University’s research on new technology for the EAS and …. [c]oordinating with the National Council on Disability to gather Commercial Mobile Alerting System requirements pertaining to the disability community as well as identifying educational and training strategies on disabilities for emergency managers.” FEMA also purchased equipment for its Regions to use in communicating emergency and disaster assistance information to persons with hearing limitations.
Meanwhile, Jim Kish, Director of the Technological Hazards Division for FEMA, described the practices of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) in Alabama. Community members with disabilities voluntarily registered and FEMA and the US Army have worked with state, local, and tribal planners and various community and volunteer organizations to create a plan that takes into account the needs of all members of the population. Members of the elderly and disabled populations of the community participated in the development of the plan, providing important feedback about emergency equipment that was incorporated into the final emergency plan. (e.g. Special Population Planner).
Panelists recommended that Roth establish a voluntary registry of potential disaster victims who are disabled who may need help evacuating their homes in a disaster. Roth responded that the ODIC does not have the budget or staff to create such a registry and support such services. Furthermore, Roth stated that these types of registries can cause complacency and the expectation that help will always arrive in a timely fashion.
The ODIC currently has a budget of $150,000 and only one paid full-time staff position.