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SCI Forum Report


Worst Case Scenarios: Be Prepared!

Presented on April 10, 2007, by Tracy Connelly, Emergency Preparedness Training Specialist for the City of Seattle. Read the report or watch the video from this page.

Emergency preparedness is a concern for everyone these days and an absolute necessity for persons with disabilities such as SCI. In this SCI Forum video, guest speaker Tracy Connelly, Emergency Preparedness Training Specialist for the City of Seattle, talks about the natural and man-made hazards we face here in Washington State and how to take steps toward better preparedness. Learn how to assemble a low-cost emergency supply kit, create a family disaster plan, stay safe and organized in the aftermath, and set up a support network of friends, co-workers and neighbors who can assist during and after a disaster. Tracy discusses issues of specific concern to the SCI population and shares preparedness tips and solutions for all kinds of worst case scenarios.


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SCI Forum Report

How we respond to disaster

Tracy Connelly, Emergency Preparedness Training Specialist with the City of Seattle, opened this evening’s forum with an admission: “I did not wake up one day at seven years old and think, 'Hey, wouldn't it be fun to talk about disasters for a living?'” 

She was working as an HIV testing counselor for New York State Department of Health when “something called September eleventh happened.”  

“During disasters you don't think rationally,” she stated. “I was at work and we heard on the radio that a plane went through one of the towers. We thought, ‘It's such a nice day, who could miss the tower?’ Eight minutes later there's another plane, and your immediate thought is, ‘we're under attack!’” 

Since her office was in the next closest government building to the towers, she feared her building could be next. There was no disaster plan—or at least none the employees were aware of—so everyone just rushed out of the building. With people everywhere flooding the streets, emergency vehicles couldn’t get through.

“We see this time and time again with every disaster,” Connelly said. “Communication is often the biggest failure.”
When she finally arrived home 10 hours later, she didn’t know where all her family members were. Waiting to find out if they were safe (which they were) was an agony she hopes never to repeat.

This experience prompted her to join AmeriCorps and later to work for the Red Cross in disaster preparedness and response, including during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.   

What she noticed in New Orleans was the eagerness with which people spontaneously helped each other out and shared information during the post-disaster confusion. She saw how these connections made an enormous difference and recognized how much stronger people would be in a disaster if some of these relationships were set up ahead of time.

“If you look around this room, around your neighborhood, your place of work—the people you see are the first responders in a disaster,” she said. The professionals will be dealing with the big crises; individual crises will not be a priority.

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It’s not just earthquakes

Although people in the Northwest are most concerned about earthquakes, other events also can shut down a region:

What do all these events have in common?

“The steps you take to prepare for an earthquake will benefit you for a lot of these other disasters,” Connelly said. 

She acknowledged that for many people, the idea of getting prepared for emergencies is so daunting that they just don’t get started. “They think, ‘I’ve got to buy this and I’ve got to do that and it’s going to take a lot of time.' But preparedness can be taken one little step at a time, and every step makes you better off. Some steps take only a couple of minutes.”

“I strongly encourage folks to take one action within the next twenty-four hours,” she said, “because then you're more likely to continue with the steps toward preparedness. Preparedness is a process. It's always evolving, always changing.” Preparedness plans should be reviewed and updated periodically. 

Depending on the disaster, you may be told to either evacuate (typical with a Hurricane) or shelter in place (usually the case with earthquakes). Either way, you still need to have a plan, Connelly said.

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Earthquake safety

“Earthquake safety is one of those things that has been changing because we learn from the experience of others,” Connelly reported. Until recently, people were told to go to a doorway during an earthquake. The way houses are built now, however, makes this practice less safe and can actually result in broken bones. Then people were told to “drop and cover,’ but this wasn’t good enough because the furniture bounced away. Now the rule is, “drop, cover and hold”—get under a table and hold onto it so it remains covering you while the shaking is going on.

For people in wheelchairs, Connelly advised locking their wheels and covering their head and neck with something, even if it’s just a book. Earthquakes in this country don’t usually result in collapsed buildings; rather, facades crumble, windows break, bookcases tip over, and pictures and other decorative items fall off the wall. Take an inventory of your house with this in mind—if something could break or fall and hurt someone or block an exit, it’s a hazard.

Lock, Cover & Hold during an earthquake

“We cannot predict when an earthquake will happen,” Connelly said. “With storms and wind, we have a little warning, and people have time to run to the store to pick up extra supplies. Well, here’s the warning: we are going to have an earthquake! I don't know when, it could happen tomorrow, or in fifty years, or in two weeks. But we know it's going to happen.”

“So start taking some actions today as if we got that immediate warning,” she advised.  “Although we can't predict when earthquakes will happen, we can predict some of the ways that we'll be affected.” 

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Consequences of a disaster

Extended disruption to infrastructure carries the most impacts.   

Please note: Emergency Response Agencies will be overwhelmed immediately following a moderate to major disaster. Some fire, police, and other emergency personnel will be unable to report to duty (which happened in New Orleans after the levees broke). Those that can be mobilized will be dealing with large scale priorities. “The fire department is actually told that (during large disasters) if somebody is standing there on fire, they are not to stop,” Connelly warned. “Their first responsibility is to do a damage assessment of the area and report in. Then they need to put out fires in schools and hospitals.”

For these reasons, individuals will need to rely on themselves and each other in the early days of a major disaster. This is why it’s so important to plan and communicate ahead of time with others at home, work and in the neighborhood, and why creating a personal support network is such a critical part of preparedness.

Step One: Create a Personal Support Network

A personal support network is especially critical for individuals with disabilities. A personal assessment can help you identify the specific kinds of help you will need in an emergency situation. To assist you in this process, follow the steps in the worksheet on Emergency Preparedness Actions for Persons with SCI.

Steps in creating your personal support network:

Make sure someone in the neighborhood knows how to take care of utilities, such as turning off gas and water, if you aren’t home. Ask someone to come and check on you if something happens, and explain how they can do that. “Have these conversations and relationships in place ahead of time,” Connelly said.

“It’s also good to practice giving good, clear, simple directions,” she continued. “During a disaster, our adrenaline is through the roof and we’re not necessarily thinking straight. That’s why practice is so important.”

Also share important health information with people in your network, such as symptoms to watch for or where you keep your medications.

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Get Ready: Stock Supplies

Store a minimum three-day supply of these items for you and your family. “This is important, but don't feel overwhelmed by it,” Connelly said.  “Start with the top three items that are most important for you. Make it work for you.”  Remember to keep a smaller version of your supply kit at work and in your car. (See additional supply kit suggestions for individuals with SCI on our "tips" sheet.)

Basic supply kit:

Water recommendations are based on using half a gallon for drinking and half a gallon for food, sanitation, and cooking per day.  “But I don't have a lot of space in my apartment (to store water), and I don't mind being a little dirty,” Connelly admitted. “I also have nothing in my kit that needs to be cooked. So I only store half a gallon of water per day.”

Use bleach to sanitize water, not iodine. How much bleach? According to Connelly, use enough so the water smells a little like bleach. “I would add a little bit, shake it, and let it sit for half an hour. When you open it up, if you can’t smell a little bleach, you need to add more. You need to make sure that whatever kind of bacteria that might be growing in there is dead before you're drinking it.”
Stored tap water should be replaced every six months, and bottled water yearly.

Radio and batteries—or crank-type radios—are critical for monitoring the situation and getting important information, such as road conditions, evacuation plans and shelters, utility breakdowns, etc. Check with your local office of emergency management for your area’s designated emergency radio station (in King County, Washington, tune in to KIRO 710 AM). In any disaster, information is the key, Connelly asserted. “If you have an idea of what's happening and how long you'll be affected, it's a lot easier to handle.”

“You’ll notice food is lower on the list,” Connelly said. “We can actually go a little bit without food.  Do we want to?  Probably not, but we can get by.  But when you store your food, make it stuff you like.  If you don't like tuna fish today, you're not going to like it during a disaster.  You'll probably hate it more because now you're tired, you're cranky, you're in a disaster, and now you have to eat something you don't like. Make sure there are things in there that you do like. A little comfort food is a good idea.”

Flash lights and glow sticks are the approved lighting supplies. Candles are too dangerous—they are becoming the number one fire starter in the country, Connelly warned. “I don't even let my roommate have candles in the house.”  Glow sticks are safe, inexpensive, easy to use, and store well.

Sturdy shoes and gloves: “I recommend keeping the shoes or the gloves and a flashlight or a glow stick underneath your bed, Connelly said. “If something happens in the middle of the night, they're available to you.”

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What skills will you & your family need to take care of yourselves?

 This is creating a safe environment!

Two ways out of each room may not always be possible. “I don't have a lot of ways out of my apartment. If you can't come up with two exits, at least practice that one, and think about ways to prevent smoke and fire from getting to you before help arrives (towel under the doorway, whistle to signal where you are).”

Regarding first aid, “eighty percent of the time, if you ever use first aid or CPR, it'll be on somebody in your household” Connelly stated.

Know how and when to control your utilities. Is your water heater properly strapped down?  Do you use gas or electricity, and do you know the safe ways for turning them off? Sixty percent of all the fires that happened after the 1994 earthquake in Northridge, California, were due to inadequately secured water heaters that popped off their gas lines.

If you see sparks coming out of an outlet, it’s probably a good time to turn off the electricity, Connelly warned, and do it properly so a surge doesn’t start a fire. The City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management has information about utilities, First Aid classes, and a wealth of other resources. Call 206-233-7123 or go to http://www.seattle.gov/emergency/.

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Step two: Have a plan

After a disaster, please stay off all phones for a minimum of 4 hours. 

“Knowing where our families and friends are makes us able to do a lot more,” Connelly said. “We can handle a lot of situations when we know folks are okay and that they're safe.” 

 The most reliable telephone line after a disaster is going to be long distance, and the most reliable long distance line is going be a pay phone. “Now, good luck finding a pay phone,” Connelly quipped. “But I went through my neighborhood and found two pay phone within a five block radius.”

“And we want to stay off those local lines so that people with life-threatening emergencies can access 911,” she continued. “Can anyone guess what was the number one reason people called 911 after the Northridge earthquake?  It was, ‘Was there an earthquake?’  ‘Did an earthquake just happen?’  Please turn on the radio or TV to find out what’s going on. If you need reassurance, knock on your neighbor's door. We had one fatality during that event and it was a man trying to call 911 to report that his wife was having a heart attack, but he wasn't able to get through.  That is a preventable death.”

Even when the phones crash, email and the internet may still be up and running. Have depth to your  plan by including the email address of your out-of-area contact. “Text messaging on telephones is becoming popular for emergencies,” Connelly noted. “You can text, hit send, and even if it doesn't go through right away, it keeps trying to resend it, and then it will let you know when it's sent.”

Practice your plan
    Every time you practice you double your chances of doing the right thing during an emergency. If you do not practice, there is only a 10% chance of doing it right when you need it. “Practice can be a variety of things,” Connelly said. “It can be physically practicing something. Or it can be having a dialog about it, as in ‘if this happens, this is what you and I are going to do.’”

Connelly’s goal is for disaster preparedness to be ingrained in our culture, something like seatbelts are now. Thirty years ago when laws were passed requiring everybody to wear seatbelts, “People reacted—oh, it's going to wrinkle my clothes, it's going to get in my way, it's going to be uncomfortable. And now most people get in their cars and, without even thinking about it, they put a belt on.”

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Step three: Getting organized 

The City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management can help you get prepared. Call for information (206-233-7123) or visit their web site (http://www.seattle.gov/emergency/).

This office has a program called Seattle Neighborhoods Actively Prepare, or SNAP, to assist neighborhood groups in their efforts to “get ready, get connected and get strong” for any potential emergency. Guidelines, materials and a 16-minute disaster preparedness video are also available for SNAP groups. (SNAP’s web site: http://www.seattle.gov/emergency/programs/snap/; email: snap@seattle.gov.)

“One of the lessons we learned with Katrina is that you can't necessarily rely on the government immediately after a disaster,” Connelly said. “We want to be a resource, but we don't want your preparedness relying on our availability (during or after a disaster). That's just not realistic.”

The  City of Seattle Office of Emergency Management is happy to work with individuals on concerns specific to their disability or circumstances. “Call us. Let us be a resource,” Connelly said. “If we don’t have immediate solutions to your specific situation or abilities, we can brainstorm together.”


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