Emergency preparedness for everyone

MARSHALL – Being prepared is a key part of surviving natural disasters. But a good emergency plan needs to include everyone in the community – especially the people who may be most vulnerable.

That means emergency planners must reach out to community members who may have trouble moving independently, who face language barriers, or who are blind or hard of hearing, said speakers at a public forum at Southwest Minnesota State University on Thursday.

“We do not get a pass just because it’s an emergency,” said Barb Fonkert, a member of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (HSEM).

Fonkert said Thursday’s forum was a chance for emergency responders, area residents and advocates for people with disabilities to share ideas about how best to communicate with, and help, people with specialized needs during an emergency.

The forum, organized by the Southwestern Center for Independent Living (SWCIL), Lyon County Emergency Management and the SMSU Public Safety Office, drew visitors from around Minnesota and into North Dakota.

Fonkert said the need to include people with specialized needs in planning for disasters got widespread attention in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Many of the hurricane’s victims were people unable to evacuate in time.

“We learned the ugly side of not planning for people with accessibility and functional needs and people with disabilities. People died,” Fonken said. Now, emergency managers need to reconsider factors like communication, transportation and maintaining health and safety for community members.

Fonkert said it’s especially important because greater Minnesota’s population is aging. More people are likely to have disabilities, or decreased mobility.

“Particularly in rural areas, we’re seeing a lot of that,” she said.

Panelists at the forum said it was important to have more than one channel of communication for sending emergency warnings. For example, a tornado siren wouldn’t be much help for a deaf person, but a text message would, said Tracy Bell, who works with the state Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services.

At the same time, “Written warnings are not going to work well” for someone who is blind, said panelist Linda Lingen. “You need to make sure you send it out in a variety of ways.”

Panelists said using computers and wireless devices like mobile phones, as well as emergency sirens and radio warnings, make it easier to reach a wide variety of people.

Transportation was another big factor to think about for emergency response, panelists said. In a natural disaster, people who use equipment like canes, walkers or wheelchairs to get around shouldn’t be evacuated without them. The same goes for needed medical equipment. But, panelists said, this also means emergency planners have to think about what kinds of handicapped-accessible transportation would be available in their community.

Panelists urged emergency planners to work together with community members, as well as schools and local religious groups. Pat Thomas, of Marshall Area Adult Education, said this was especially important for immigrant and non-English speaking populations.

“They absolutely have to be part of the process,” Thomas said. Every local immigrant community has its own needs and culture, she said. Immigrant community leaders will have the best knowledge of how to communicate with other members and how to help respond in case of an emergency.

Ted Stamp, an independent living advocate with SWCIL, said the planning for the forum started with talks last fall. Stamp and Lyon County Emergency Manager Tammy VanOverbeke said emergency planning for people with special needs was an important subject for the region, but one that doesn’t often get addressed.

“Our hope is to get the word out,” Stamp said, as well as to get area emergency planners talking about solutions.