When you first hear the term "special needs" in emergency planning, you may think of senior citizens or someone with medical needs. If so, you are only beginning to address the issue.
The term "special needs" now covers the following range of individuals and groups that can be affected before, during and after an incident:
- Individuals with disabilities,
- Senior citizens,
- Pregnant women,
- People with pets,
- Diverse cultures,
- Those with limited English proficiency or who are non-English speaking,
- Individuals lacking transportation,
- Those with chronic medical disorders, and
- People with pharmacological dependency.
The above is a summary of the current definition of "special needs." However, there are some differences between various federal, state and local agencies.
Now that you have a better idea of the definition of special needs, and who these individuals are in your community, how you do help them before, during and after a disaster?
Some jurisdictions maintain a voluntary registry of special needs residents, and some do not. The main reason many cities do not maintain a special needs registry is that once a registry is created and a person registers, there is an expectation that their special needs will be addressed during an emergency. Because no agency can guarantee that they can meet all requests for assistance on a daily basis, much less during a disaster, many agencies do not maintain such a database for fear of legal action if they fail to meet expectations. Another reason some cities lack such a registry is the maintenance involved in keeping it updated so that it is current during a disaster. Many individuals who fall under the classification of special needs do not see themselves as such and choose not to register. Some are also distrustful of having their personal information listed in another government computer system.
Some possible work-a-rounds for the special needs population include letting a family member, friend or neighbor know of their special needs so that they can be of assistance or contact local agencies if help is needed. Most utility companies also offer a voluntary registry for those with medical devices who require electric power.
The New York City Office of Emergency Management is in the testing phase of an emergency notification system that a person with special needs can customize with alerts for their specific needs. This system, named Notify NY, enables notifications to be made by telephone call, e-mail or text message.
Since the special needs population may require you to meet minor to major needs, how will you meet these needs during a disaster? Does your emergency plan cover transportation for those lacking their own cars? Since Red Cross shelters are for the general population, for whom and where are special needs shelters going to be set up and operated? Sometimes special needs shelters are established on a regional basis.
A group of special needs individuals that comes to mind is that of "older" citizens. However, just being a senior citizen does not put you in the special needs category. A senior citizen may simply be someone who needs help with taking their daily medication or preparing meals. If they were to go to a general population shelter, they most likely could function on their own with minimal assistance. On the other hand, if a person was living at home and was dependent on a daily home health aide or a medical device, this individual would most likely require a special needs shelter.
Dietary requirements might also create the need for a special needs shelter. This could be the result of a medical condition, such high blood pressure or diabetes, that requires a special diet, or it could be a religious or cultural requirement.
If your city has a large population dependent on public transportation, how would these citizens evacuate or travel to a shelter? Are there plans to move those who require transportation? Are your plans in sync with other agencies so that several departments are all not dependant on the same resources, such as three different agencies all counting on the same bus company for transport.
People and their pets also fall under the special needs definition, as pets are not allowed in Red Cross shelters, while service animals are. (The topic of animals in disasters was covered in a recent article.) These people and their pets need to be sheltered or they may not evacuate when necessary.
Getting the word out to those who do not speak English as their primary language presents another challenge. In some cities, such as Los Angeles, there are more than 150 languages spoken. How will you communicate with such a diverse population? And don't forget those who use sign language.
As with most other topics in emergency planning, now is the time to start planning for your special needs population, don't wait until the flood waters start rising.
Glen Karpovich was a Police Officer for more than 25 years. Currently, he serves as the Deputy Coordinator for the Ramsey, New Jersey, Office of Emergency Management. He is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician (NREMT-B). While with the Ramsey, New Jersey, Police Department, he was a patrol sergeant. Karpovich also has over eight years of business continuity/emergency planning for clients in the New York City area. He holds a graduate certificate in Public Management from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a master's degree in Social Science from Long Island University.