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  • Writer's pictureMeg O'Connell

We Remember. But Are We Ready?

This week marks 20 years since the deadly terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

The attacks on America were unprecedented and to this day, they remain the deadliest terror attacks in world history.

2,977 Americans died, 25,000 people were injured and countless have experienced long term health complications. The attacks reverberated around the world and caused a global economic recession.

In the immediate days following 9/11 we heard the harrowing stories of evacuations, near misses and first responders who saved countless lives as they entered the burning buildings.

These stories included heroic efforts to evacuate employees with disabilities. Stories of co-workers carrying colleagues in their wheelchairs down dozens of flights of stairs, of team members waiting in stairwells so disabled employees would not be alone as they waited for first responders.

On this anniversary, emergency preparedness for people with disabilities is still a major concern and one we must still work hard to effectively address. So, I reached out to talk with Marcie Roth, CEO of The World Institute on Disability and preeminent expert on disability emergency preparedness to share a few insights. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

Meg: So, Marcie - with our new exposure to a global pandemic I think we all have workplace safety top of mind. What does everyone need to know or do when it comes to workplace safety?

Marcie: As we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 – it is a great time for employers and employees to actively plan for emergencies. I say it all the time, written plans are useless, but active planning is priceless. So, the most important thing is for all employees to be involved in the planning for emergencies whether an evacuation is involved or not. We need to actively plan for emergencies and conduct drills that exercise a much wider variety of scenarios. So, as we return to work every employee should be asking questions and getting involved in emergency preparedness. This is not just important for individual safety, but also for continuity of operations.

Meg: It is such a great point. I can’t remember the last time I was in a building and there were emergency drills. We know in the U.S. 1 in 4 people has a disability, so we must consider employees with disabilities in our emergency preparedness. Can you give us 3-5 things we should be thinking about when it comes to disability emergency preparedness.

Marcie: Sure, there are many things companies and employees should do.

1. Help Your Team Build a Plan: Everyone needs to think about the people around them. Everybody, including people with disabilities, needs to be in a position to be a helper. The configuration around you is never static, we all need to think through what would it take for everyone to get actionable information, accessible to them, about getting out of the building, or sheltering in place. Think through the various scenarios and how you would respond.

2. Review & Test Your Plan Annually: Emergency planning, or continuity of operations is critical. We saw this with the Covid-19 pandemic when every company had to shift the way they operated. It is NOT JUST a paper plan but should also include drills that test the various scenarios. Testing the plans outside of the “disaster” will identify gaps. Most importantly every company needs plans that include people with various disabilities as part of the design team.

3. Be Prepared to Evacuate or Shelter in Place:

o Evacuation– Buildings may have pre-determined areas of refuge where employees shelter in place and wait for assistance. Yet, we’ve found most people won’t wait in a designated area for rescue and will try to help each other evacuate. First responders may not be available for an extended period. (Think multi-floor buildings, multi-locations). For this reason, engaging everyone in evacuation planning is a very important approach to minimize chaotic evacuations. Also, be sure a safe gathering point outside an evacuated space is reachable and accessible to everyone.

o Shelter-in-PlaceEmployees, customers, contractors and the general public, with and without disabilities may shelter in your facilities in an emergency. This could be for a few moments or for a much longer period. Have you considered what it would take to manage this? Are you ready for an extended stay, if needed?

4. Everyone Has a Role: Every organization should engage all employees as a part of the company’s emergency response team. While you’ll likely have emergency response leads, and floor captains, everyone can be a critical asset if they have been included in planning and drills. People with and without disabilities should be taught how to use evacuation chairs if they are provided. Remember you may have contractors, customers, visitors, and the general public on-site and people will be in various locations at the moment disaster strikes. So, we must be prepared to handle a shifting environment and resources.

5. Speak Up: Companies can’t plan for what they are unaware of. So, tell co-workers, HR or facilities if you will need assistance or can offer specific assistance. Also, speak up when you see something that would interfere with the workplace emergency readiness – for example sometimes evacuation routes can become blocked with planters, waste cans and decorative furniture. If you see things that would interfere with emergency readiness, contact the appropriate people and let them know a safety hazard exists. It will be too late when the emergency happens, and that puts people at risk.

Meg: Marcie, thank you. This is an excellent list and gives us some actions to take to become emergency preparedness champions. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Marcie: Thanks, Meg. In closing, I would just add being prepared for an emergency is a skill. This skill saves lives and that is what emergency preparedness is – the ability to save and protect the lives. The World Institute on Disability includes leading global experts on disability-inclusive emergency and disaster planning, response and recovery. We welcome the opportunity to help companies to take a look at their readiness for whatever is to come and their ability to maintain or resume local and global operations in a disaster.

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