Agencies urged to include disabled workers in emergency plans

Communication, flexibility and agency commitment are the keys to establishing emergency procedures for employees with disabilities, according to a new Labor Department report.

More than 120,000 employees with disabilities work in facilities owned or leased by the federal government, according to Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities: An Interagency Seminar of Exchange for Federal Managers. The report, released on Monday, summarized concerns expressed by agency officials during a December 2003 conference called to identify best practices on the issue.

"We would hope that safety of workers is a top consideration in any facility," said Roy Grizzard, first assistant secretary of the Labor Department's Office of Disability Employment Policy.

Conference attendees emphasized including people with disabilities in emergency preparedness planning.

Lawrence Roffee, executive director of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, pointed out the possible benefits of making people with disabilities a part of the evacuation plan. A blind person is likely in a better position to lead someone out in a dark, smoky stairwell much easier than a sighted person, he said during the conference.

The need for agency budget and personnel commitment is crucial during the implementation phase of an evacuation plan, the report argues. John Benison, disability policy adviser for the Transportation Department's Office of Civil Rights, reiterated this point, noting that a memo from Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta served as the catalyst for its emergency preparedness program. Investing in equipment such as evacuation chairs for the wheelchair-bound and vibrating pagers for the deaf were also cited as worthwhile costs.

The report also identified other technological improvements that could be used in federal buildings. Because alarm systems do not alert the blind or deaf in some circumstances, the report recommended a Computer Electronic Notification System that could provide more information by designating the type of emergency and instructions. This could only be used, however, if employees were at their desks. Strobe lights were recommended to supplement audible fire alarms.

According to Edwina Juillet, co-founder of the National Taskforce on Fire/Life Safety for People with Disabilities, the assumption that elevators cannot be used in emergencies is not always true. Elevators are built to resist hours of heat exposure and smoke, said Juillet, who urged the development of a mode of communication between elevator operators and people with disabilities. One participant noted that teletypewriters in elevators would allow deaf employees to communicate with command centers as well.

Familiarity not only with new technologies but with procedures and possible glitches was another point stressed by conference attendees. Without drills, it is unlikely that employees will be familiar enough with evacuation procedures to proceed efficiently in an emergency situation. Practice also allows for adjustments. As problems arise, they can be remedied before an actual emergency occurs. And though some participants worried that repeated drills would lead to nonchalance, Grizzard disputed that notion.

"To me, memories of 9/11 are too etched in our minds," Grizzard said. "People say practice makes perfect, but for us, practice makes permanent."

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