Local Heroes Helping Their Fellow Citizens With Disabilities

In 2005, the Capitol Region Emergency Planning Committee (CREPC) in Hartford, Connecticut, experienced success in many areas of emergency response preparation. Building on homeland security grants, regional leadership, a common mission, and sheer determination, most activities carried out by the committee, and the agencies represented on the committee, were a natural expansion of the collaboration and mutual aid policies and attitudes that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

One operational area, though – dealing with citizens suffering from various disabilities and/or possessing emergency needs, now referred to as “functional needs” – was lacking in both leadership and focus. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 served as yet another strong indicator of the need for states and local governments to expand their efforts to help citizens with functional needs in or following any type of disaster-related incident.

A Four-Step Plan of Action

To do just that, a representative committee of local leaders met and determined that an effective plan of action should be developed to determine what specific steps should be taken to address this shortage of a much-needed service. The first step taken was to establish an additional and specifically targeted regional emergency support program for functional needs (RESF 19). The second step was to develop – in collaboration with the University of Connecticut – a special course curriculum focused on such interrelated actions and topics as response doctrine, emergency procedures, situational and sensitivity awareness, and the behavioral patterns of citizens suffering from various disabilities.

The third action taken was the creation of a “Regional Disability Training Team” that included in its membership several people suffering from various types of disabilities themselves – legally blind, for example, hearing-impaired, and/or mobility-impaired. Those members contributed in many ways – particularly through their personal life experiences, which had a tremendous impact on the overall value of the collective endeavor.

An unanticipated fourth benefit was provided when the Regional Disability Training Team became part of another experiment when it was incorporated into the statewide Citizen Corps Council Program as a functioning Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) sponsored by West Hartford.

Teaming Up for a More Effective Response

In short, the regional disability training team has become an increasingly valuable component of the Capitol Region emergency preparedness initiative. Those participating in the program recorded several successes almost immediately when first responders – beginning with the fire service – went through the two- to four-hour program. Many course-evaluation comments praised the course and its value to the community at large. Many firefighters commented that they had never before had the opportunity to be trained by instructors who themselves were suffering from various disabilities and were able to tell the trainees exactly how to help them when help was needed.

Learning how assistive devices play a key role in the life of a mobility-impaired citizen is the first lesson covered in the program. The television coverage of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 showed disabled citizens being safely evacuated from New Orleans International Airport – but then arriving at their destinations to find no mobility support available because their wheelchairs had been left behind in New Orleans.

Anxieties, Misunderstandings, Service Animals & Other Topics

Among the other lessons learned from the course are a better understanding of how to communicate with persons with various types of disabilities, and what questions to ask before their evacuation or transport takes place; also covered are such topics as occasional misunderstandings, the possible lack of communication, and how to deal with unexpected body language, fear of the unknown, and/or anxiety – any or all of which may slow down proper execution of the life-saving actions required. Ever mindful of changing emergency response needs and governmental regulatory pressure to consider citizens with functional needs, the course has been modified numerous times to reflect both the latest doctrine and the continued input from attendees.

The key mission of the team is to deliver a course that offers clarity of need, a familiarization with proper response techniques, a positive outcome for affected citizens, and the satisfaction of all persons involved in understanding the sensitivity of the situation. Today’s specific course content includes discussion of, among other things: the prevalence and preferences of people with disabilities; general disability awareness and appropriate interaction etiquette; the importance of ensuring that people and their supportive devices stay together; various types of effective communication methods; a working knowledge of assistance/service animals and their roles; registry development; emergency response role-playing activities; and the continued importance of ensuring that people suffering from various disabilities continue to help develop their own emergency response plans.

To date, more than 3,300 first responders have been through the course since its inception. The largest challenge so far involved training over 400 police officers from the Hartford Police Department. In addition, presentations also have been made at various conferences and special events, and the course has been made available to students at both the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The team’s efforts have been commended and officially recognized by senior officials of both state and federal agencies. By far, however, it seems that the most valuable impact the training efforts, and training team, have brought to the Capitol Region as a whole is the enhancement of regional resiliency and overall response capabilities. This value was clearly illustrated by the heroic and extremely successful efforts of first responders in the region during the recent massive power outages and unprecedented damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Stephen M. Thal

Stephen M. Thal is commander of the Disability Training Team of the Capitol Region (Hartford, Connecticut) and chairman of the Region 3 Regional Emergency Support Function 19 Functional Needs Service. He can be contacted at stephenthal@sbcglobal.net.

Bill Austin
William H. Austin

William H. Austin, DABCHS, CFO, CHS-V, MIFire, currently teaches in the Emergency Management Master’s Degree Program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut (2016-present). He formed a consulting firm, The Austin Group LLC, in 2011. He served as fire chief of West Hartford, CT (1996-2011) and as the fire chief of Tampa, FL (1985-1995). He has a master’s degree in Security Studies (Defense and Homeland Security) from the United States Naval Postgraduate School (2006) and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Troy State University (1993). He is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council and has served on various governing councils in Florida and Connecticut. Contact at whaustin.tag@gmail.com



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