By David Liebler.
San Diego County’s emergency website, ReadySanDiego.org, has information on a wide variety of natural disasters that could result in large-scale evacuations, such as an earthquake, tsunami, fire, or flooding; there are also man-made crises, like gas leaks or terrorism. The County and its cities work to prepare for such disasters – and now have a new tool to assist in their emergency response: a series of informative videos that provide first responders training on evacuating individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.
A priority of the County’s Office of Emergency Services under the leadership of Director Holly Crawford is to ensure the needs of vulnerable residents are met in times of disaster. She points to studies that show in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, people who are particularly vulnerable are more susceptible to be left behind or unable to evacuate.
In order to help first responders be in a better position to serve this segment of the public, the County has produced a series of eight training videos. They are now being used as tools by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, as well as local police and fire departments.
Each of the videos focuses on a different disability: Alzheimer’s and memory loss, autism, blind or impaired vision, chronic illness, cognitive disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing, mental illness, and physical disabilities. Experts provide insight on how to recognize a particular disability and tips on how to effectively interact with individuals in order to quickly evacuate them while preserving their dignity. Simulations in each video feature actors exhibiting behaviors discussed and local first responders employing best practices. Accompanying each video is a handout that provides key information.
“We wanted to have local first responders in the videos. We wanted to have local experts. … And where possible, we used individuals with disabilities to portray individuals with disabilities in the videos,” Crawford explained.
According to Crawford, first responders are “incredibly grateful for this information. … It fills a gap.” San Diego Police Sgt. Jonathan Lowe and Coronado Fire Department Captain Jayson Summers agree.
“These training videos really help in telling officers what to focus in on, things to look for and clues to pick up from individuals on how to best approach them and communicate with them,” Sgt. Lowe explained. “There’s a big human component in this.”
Both Sgt. Lowe and Captain Summers pointed out that lessons learned from the videos are being put into practice beyond emergencies that call for evacuations. They are being utilized daily by public safety personnel when interacting with individuals with functional needs.
“A lot of things we have learned are not just applicable to emergency situations but also common, every day calls we respond to, like lost or missing autistic children, Alzheimer’s patients wandering, or people with cognitive disabilities we come in contact with,” Sgt. Lowe said. “These are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. We need to treat them with respect and give them the dignity they deserve.”
Crawford explained that was a primary goal of these videos: “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. And I think that’s the over-arching message of these videos.
Captain Summers points out that individuals with disabilities are not geographically specific to San Diego County. “To be able to provide that best level of service to your community, it would benefit any first responder greatly to learn the skills and traits in the videos.”
The training videos and supplemental handouts can be found on the County’s Office of Emergency Services website at www.ReadySanDiego.org. They are free for anyone to use; in fact, county officials encourage it.
“We really hope that every county in the state uses these videos. We really want them to be broadly distributed,” Crawford told us. “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”