Nov. 23, 2004

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Contact: Karen Henry, Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute, (785) 864-0756.

KU research shows disaster plans lacking for people with mobility impairments

LAWRENCE -- The reports of wheelchair users being left behind in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, because they were unable to evacuate revealed the acute need for better disaster planning, according to Glen White, director of the Research and Training Center for Independent Living at the University of Kansas.

The Nobody Left Behind project, directed by White with Michael Fox, KU associate professor of health policy and management; Jennifer Rowland, lecturer in applied behavioral science; and Catherine “Cat” Rooney, project coordinator, has begun that process.

The research is funded by a $615,000 three-year grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta through the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine in Washington, D.C. The grant was awarded in 2002.

The research team investigated 30 randomly selected U.S. counties, cities, parishes and boroughs where a natural or man-made disaster occurred between 1999 and 2004 to determine whether disaster plans and emergency response systems met the needs of people with mobility impairments.

Some findings of the research indicate that:

-- few county emergency managers have taken the Emergency Planning and Special Needs course offered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though most felt it could be helpful
-- county-level surveillance efforts to identify people with mobility impairments both before and after disasters are generally weak. Only 20 percent of emergency managers reported having specific guidelines in place to assist people with mobility impairments during emergencies
-- among the 80 percent who did not have specific guidelines, virtually all felt that having guidelines was important, and many had made some provisions anyway, such as with transportation, where more than half identified transportation accommodations that they have in place

The team presented the early results of the study at the first Conference on Emergency Preparedness for People with Disabilities, supported by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with the National Organization on Disability on Sept. 23 in Arlington, Va.

The team has also set up a Web survey for people with mobility impairments to share their experiences during recent emergencies and disasters at The survey responses collected to date suggest:

-- many public buildings have inaccessible escape routes
-- few people know how to use the adaptive escape chairs for wheelchair users
-- a lack of accessible transportation after a disaster event
-- very slow response hindered citizens with disabilities from returning to their homes (e.g., rebuilding ramps and moving debris)
-- shelters, including bathrooms, were not accessible for wheelchair users
-- during extended power outages, people were unable to use assistive equipment and medical devices
-- power outages disabled elevators, forcing people with mobility limitations to be dependent upon neighbors or emergency workers

“ There is virtually no empirical data on the safe and efficient evacuation of persons with disabilities in disaster planning,” White said. “We hope this study will lead to a national model that can prevent death and injury for this population in future disaster situations."
Study consultants include Richard Gist, principal assistant to the director of the Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department; Erin Lynch, assistant director of planning and preparedness, Kansas City, Mo., American Red Cross; and June Isaacson Kailes, national disability policy consultant.


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