Victoria is increasingly facing fire and flood emergencies, raising a host of challenges to prepare for. One of them is how to better meet the needs of people with a disability.
With one in five Victorians living with a disability, making them more vulnerable in the event of emergencies, it is critical to address this issue in emergency planning. A NSW project could provide some pointers.
The Disability Inclusive Disaster Preparedness in NSW project aims to build the resilience of people with a disability by increasing the organisational capability of community organisations, disability organisations, local government, local businesses and emergency managers.
Importantly the project is involving people with disability, building their knowledge and expertise into emergency planning and risk reduction strategies.
Tragically, history shows people with disability are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during evacuation in disasters.
The daily challenges that people with disability face can be magnified and intensified during an emergency or natural disaster. Tragically, history shows people with disability are more likely to be left behind or abandoned during evacuation in disasters. They may also not be able to access emergency facilities and services, including shelters, camps, food distribution and transportation. Disrupted physical, social, economic, and environmental networks and support systems can affect people with disability much more so than the general population.
University of Sydney senior research associate Jo Ragen has described her experience of a 1994 bushfire on the NSW coast, where more than 100 young people with disability at a recreational camp needed to be evacuated.
“I told the SES ‘we can’t be leaving on trucks’,” Ms Ragen told The Conversation.
“Even though they thought we had enough time to get out, in the end, that’s what happened: young people were loaded onto the back of trucks and utes and we left behind what was really essential equipment for those being evacuated – wheelchairs, ventilators.”
The experience taught Ms Ragen people with disability need to be involved in emergency planning right from the planning stage.
“Plans that lump all people with disabilities together are like plans that say ‘all people with blonde hair must do this in a bushfire’. In my experience, when you wait for others to plan, or think someone else will evacuate you, you’ll either get evacuated in a way that is not safe or appropriate, or you’ll get left behind.”
Participants in the NSW project agree community-led approaches that include a network of formal and informal support should be encouraged. The ‘power of many’ was seen as important to minimise the risks of those who are most vulnerable in their community.
In Victoria’s Gippsland region, following the 2014 Hazelwood Mind fires, one Morwell community organisation outlined the challenges it faced protecting the health of about 40 people with disability attending their day program, as smoke and ash billowed for more than a month and health warnings were issued.
“We couldn’t just shut our doors – some clients have nowhere else to go as their residential facilities are unstaffed during these times,” the organisation stated.
“On really smoky days we relocated our day programs and did trips to the beach. It was very challenging trying to organise, at short notice, transport for 40 people with varying disabilities.”
The best way to reduce the vulnerability of people with a disability during natural disasters is including the people themselves, and the organisations that work with them, in emergency planning.
Emergency Management Victoria’s recently released The Emergency Management Diversity and Inclusion Framework acknowledges diverse organisations engage more meaningfully with the communities they serve, gaining deeper insights into needs and expectations and how best to meet them. Using their broad and in-depth base of knowledge, ideas and insights will lead to better planning in times of emergency or disaster.
With Victoria’s recent history of fire and flood, and with one on five Victorians living with a disability, it is critical our emergency management sector adopts an inclusive approach to emergency planning to better meet the needs of people with a disability.
The Australian Red Cross tool REDiPlan Household preparedness for people with a disability, their families and carers, provides advice and information on preparing for an emergency.
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