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First responders train to help disabled in emergency, disaster

Sean I. Mills
Staff writer
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Posted 4/4/19

WHITESTOWN — When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, Emergency Services Director Kevin W. Revere said a viral image of nursing home residents wheelchair-deep in water changed the way Oneida …

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First responders train to help disabled in emergency, disaster

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WHITESTOWN — When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in 2017, Emergency Services Director Kevin W. Revere said a viral image of nursing home residents wheelchair-deep in water changed the way Oneida County responds to disabled peoples during emergencies.

“There’s a lot more conversation going on,” Revere said on Wednesday.

“It’s all about communication, between emergency management, the first-responders, these agencies and the clientele too.”

As part of the new conversations and procedures, a two-day training session was held this week at the State Preparedness Training Center to teach local treatment personnel how best to respond and interact with disabled people in a crisis. The class was held for employees of such agencies as Upstate Cerebral Palsy, Betsy Ross Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, the Utica Fire Department and the Eastern Air Defense Sector, among others.

“The ultimate goal is that we have the county emergency management offices coming together with the disability community to have ongoing, monthly planning and preparedness councils or advisory groups,” said David V. Whalen, the lecturer.

“We’re teaching them how to understand the disabilities, and we’re also teaching them how to pull together the process of proper response.”

Whalen is the project director of the First Responder Disability Awareness Training group from Niagara University near Niagara Falls. He said he is using grant money from the New York State Development Disabilities Planning Council to tour the state giving classes to first-responders and emergency management personnel in how to properly treat disabled people.

The biggest problem, Whalen said, is that emergency personnel “don’t recognize or understand the disabilities. They don’t know how to identify it. They’ll respond to a disability not knowing it’s a disability.”

Among the topics of the lecture, Whalen discussed the differences between physical and cognitive disabilities, and how first-responders cannot assume that just because someone is physically disabled that they are also mentally disabled. A person with cerebral palsy may look or sound disabled, but they are likely to be as mentally lucid as anyone else, he noted.

People on the autism spectrum might be non-verbal, and therefore can’t answer the many questions a police or firefighter might have, Whalen said. These people might be able to communicate in different ways, like through sign language.

A person with a physical disability in a wheelchair might require a specific type of help that is different from standard training, Whalen said. Lifting this person out of their wheelchair could be damaging to the physical disability if not handled properly, sometimes in spite the traditional lifting techniques that rescue personnel have been trained on.

“By-the-book way is now gone. You need to respond the way we’re teaching you to respond,” said Whalen. He has individual lectures for police officers, firefighters, 9-1-1 operators and many other specific groups.

“We want people to recognize something is different, actually identify the disability, know how to approach, interact and respond.”

Whalen noted that Oneida County agencies are “well ahead of the curve” when it comes to his teachings.

Revere said it was that viral picture from Hurricane Harvey that lit a fire under many states to increase support for the disabled in emergencies. Revere said New York State passed several new laws, which he called a “game-changer” after bringing them to the attention of County Executive Anthony J. Picente Jr.

“It’s a never-ending project,” Revere said.

Since 2017, Revere said Oneida County created a program coordinator to spearhead new policies and programs related to helping the disabled. He said there is an email list to send out new information to agencies and groups across the county. There are new training requirements for new employees at many different county agencies and non-profits.

He said his office reviews the updated plans and procedures of many different agencies, offering suggestions and changes. There are also on-site inspections of different facilities.

Revere also said his office is planning a large scale training drill for county agencies on the specific topic of aiding disabled people.

“If some planning goes into the process ahead of time, it will save lives,” Revere stated.

“We can’t predict what the disaster is going to be. It could be a weather-related thing, it could be a massive power outage, could be an active shooter, could be a fire, could be anything. We’re confident we’re on the right track.”

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