The Great Escape

With a plan in place, you can get going when the going gets tough

by Bill Greenberg on February 1, 2002 - 12:54pm

You're sitting at your desk at work and you suddenly detect the smell of smoke, along with sounds of confusion in the hallway. Someone sticks his head through the doorway of your eighth-floor office and tells you the building is on fire. What do you do?

Fire Fighters

If there's a silver lining to be found among the horrific events of Sept. 11, it could be the fact that Americans are taking the issues of safety and security more seriously.

And according to a Harris Interactive survey released in December by the National Organization on Disability (NOD), it's about time.

The survey suggests that 58 percent of people with disabilities not only don't know whether their local communities have plans to deal with a terrorist attack or other such emergency — they don't even know whom to ask.

Also, 61 percent report that they've made no plans for quick and safe evacuation from their homes. And half of those with disabilities who are employed don't believe their employers have emergency evacuation plans for their workplaces.

Noting that these numbers are significantly higher than those for people without disabilities, NOD President Alan A. Reich says, "These statistics show the country as a whole has some catching up to do to be prepared, but people with disabilities lag behind everyone else.

"This is a critical discrepancy because those of us with disabilities must in fact be better prepared so we are not at a disadvantage in an emergency."

9/11 lesson: planning saves lives

After the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (owners of the center) noted that the evacuation of the Twin Towers took more than four hours. As a result, the Port Authority spent roughly $90 million to improve both the emergency exits and the buildings' evacuation plans.

On Sept. 11 last year, it became clear that this was money well spent. A Dec. 19 USA Today story concluded that 99 percent of the people who were in the towers below crash level survived.

Boy in wheelchair trying to use stairs

In its revised evacuation plan, the Port Authority called for purchase of an evacuation chair for every twin towers occupant with a disability. On Sept. 11, one such occupant was carried down the stairs from the 67th floor by co-workers in his evacuation chair. By all accounts, he was only one example of employees with disabilities who were saved.

"The evacuation was a success," USA Today reported. "Nearly everyone who could get out did get out."

Even in lesser disasters, an evacuation plan can mean the difference between safety and tragedy.

The problem planners face, however, is that among the 54 million Americans who have some type of disability, no two people have the same combination of disabilities and other circumstances. Obviously, a plan to evacuate a vision-impaired person from a burning New York skyscraper won't help much if you're living in a one-story home in a small town and you're affected by muscular dystrophy.

So when it comes to your personal safety or that of your family, it's best to remember the old adage: If you want something done properly, you'll have to do it yourself. Whatever help you may get from landlords, employers or safety agencies, you're the person primarily responsible for knowing your physical limitations and your options in case of emergency.

Safety begins at home

Planning for a disaster would be so much easier if you could somehow look into the future and see what's going to happen in advance. Unfortunately, disasters don't work that way.

But there are some things you can do to give yourself a better chance to survive when disaster strikes.

First, you can identify the most likely threats to your safety. For example, a California resident is more likely to experience a major earthquake than someone who lives in Kansas, who would be better off guarding against tornadoes.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers general tips on both disaster preparedness for people with disabilities and assisting people with disabilities in a disaster (see "Resources"). These guidelines are a good start for developing plans for evacuation and having emergency supplies at hand.

For an expert on your local area, try the folks at your neighborhood fire department. In some communities, they'll keep a record of a disabled person in your household, so if rescue workers are dispatched to your home they'll know right away whom to look for — and where.

More importantly, fire fighters and emergency personnel have the expertise to help you design the most efficient plan for leaving your home in an emergency.

Some experts also recommend setting up a network of family and friends who can be called upon to help in the event of an emergency.

Martin Legault, president and CEO of the Wethersfield, Conn.-based Corporation for Independent Living, recommends that "anyone with a disability establish a relationship with their local fire department."

Legault's brother, Armand, who has spinal muscular atrophy, has such a relationship. "That way, if he has to call 911, they know right away what his physical limitations are and how to get him out in a hurry, if need be," Legault says.

Legault also reports that owners of many of the accessible small-group homes his nonprofit company designs (housing an average of 4.2 residents per home) are asking for more extensive accessibility and safety features than are currently required by building codes.

"Frankly, a lot of it is driven by budgetary concerns," Legault says. "But we try to encourage people to think beyond the code. For example, while the code only requires one ramped entrance, we typically recommend two — both front and back."

Legault is also a big believer in residential sprinkler systems for fire control.

"They're the best thing I've seen, in terms of limiting fire damage, and they're fairly inexpensive to install — about $3,000 to $6,000 on an average-sized, four-bedroom, ranch-style home." However, Legault cautions that such an installation can be significantly more expensive if the home receives its water from a private well, rather than a municipal water supply.

Meanwhile, back at the office

In a perfect world, everyone with a disability would have a job that involves working on the ground floor with quick and easy access out of the building.

But those who work on higher floors or have frequent interactions with fellow employees on upper floors need to have a Plan B.

The fire and safety plans for most buildings specify that no one use the elevators in the event of an emergency. Wheelchair users and others who can't easily negotiate stairs obviously need an alternative way out.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and local fire safety codes require that building owners or facility managers have written plans in place to address this issue. But do you know what plans are in place to evacuate you from your building when disaster strikes?

If your employer doesn't have such a plan, your fire department can help your company develop one.

Some plans call for employees with disabilities to go to a predesignated area to wait for rescue workers or preassigned staff members to assist them. If that's the case in your building, are those co-workers sufficiently prepared to help you once you get there? Will they know how to handle you — and, if applicable, your wheelchair?

Being "rescued" by someone who's not trained for the task can result in falls, upsets or broken bones — maybe a reasonable price for being rescued, but one to be avoided if possible. The sad fact is that, while most employers are required to have a comprehensive emergency evacuation plan on file, these plans aren't always tested to be sure they'll work.

So what would you do if you followed your company's evacuation plan during an emergency, only to find that the co-workers you're supposed to meet happened to be on vacation that day? What if you reached the preordained meeting point, only to find that the co-workers are there, but don't know what to do next?

That wouldn't be the time to conduct a quick training session. Advance training is the key to making an emergency plan work.

NOD recently convened a task force representing leading disability organizations, along with federal agencies and emergency response organizations, to study the issue of workplace emergency preparedness and disabled employees.

"The Task Force believes it is critical that people with disabilities themselves participate in emergency preparedness planning in order to ensure that the responses developed are appropriate to them," reads the task force's initial report. You can see the report at

In January, NOD was awarded a $300,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to begin its Disaster Mobilization Initiative.

Don't be shy about investigating the safety plan at your workplace. You have a right to be as safe as possible in the workplace. But, as with any other right, you may have to be prepared to fight for it.

Safety at school

To describe Sept. 11 as a stressful day for the Cumbo family of Upper Marlboro, Md., would be a classic understatement.

Ben Cumbo works for the National Imaging and Mapping Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington. On the morning of Sept. 11, he was on his way to a meeting at the Pentagon when his secretary called him back.

Ben Cumbo
Ben Cumbo, 14, helped to develop a fire safety plan at his school.

"She told me ‘there's been a plane crash in New York, and we need you back in the office,'" Cumbo recalls. "I got back to the office in time to see the second plane hit [the World Trade Center], and I asked her to call the Pentagon to tell them I wouldn't be making the meeting. When she called she got a busy signal, and right then it flashed on the TV that a plane had hit the Pentagon."

In fact, the plane hit — and destroyed — the part of the Pentagon that contained the site of Cumbo's meeting.

"I was very, very blessed — in many ways," he says.

Cumbo then had to find a way to let his family — including son Ben, 14, MDA's National Goodwill Ambassador in 1996 and 1997 — know he was all right.

While Cumbo accepts that there are certain risks inherent to the defense of our nation, he and his wife, Debi, aren't quite as understanding when it comes to the safety of their kids.

"The school that Ben goes to is a private school, and they're not really governed by any of the laws like the ADA and that type of thing," he explains. "So when we looked for a school for Ben our first concerns were education, access and safety." Ben has Duchenne muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair part of the time.

Cumbo describes the school as very accommodating. "We sat down with them and said, ‘OK, these are the things that we need for him,' and they were more than amenable to addressing them."

It was the younger Cumbo who first raised the issue of fire safety and fire drills.

"Given the relationship we've had with MDA and with the fire fighters, we were able to get the local MDA district director to get a meeting together with the school and the fire fighters. The fire fighters came in and helped them set up rooms especially for Ben to go to — on both the first and second floors, clearly marked, and registered with the fire department." (The International Association of Fire Fighters is a leading MDA national sponsor.)

The Cumbos consider themselves fortunate to have found a school that was so readily willing to adjust its evacuation plan to meet young Ben's unique needs.

"I think the intent is always there to do the right thing," Cumbo asserts. "But the ‘right thing' is not always apparent. I was very impressed when [the school] asked me if Ben would have any aversion to them literally picking him up and taking him out. I said if there's a fire raging, I don't think he's going to object at all. So they said they could get three or four of their biggest football players, and their job, if anything breaks out like this, will be to get to Ben."

Cumbo says that when all else fails, common sense should prevail.

"The bottom line is that it's good to have a plan, but you need to have flexibility within that plan," he advises. "I think that if people don't panic and they use common sense, they'll have the situation in hand."

Cumbo also believes strongly in the essential goodness of people.

"We saw that on 9-11," he says. "Even in all the madness, you've heard many, many stories of people who just responded, based on just instinct and the desire to live."

Practice, practice, practice

During the years between the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and its ultimate destruction, the Port Authority of New York held evacuation drills every six months. No doubt many occupants of the twin towers found this exercise annoying.

But the Port Authority's increased emphasis on safety — revising the evacuation plan, committing significant resources to the plan, regular practice sessions and making provisions for occupants with disabilities — was responsible for saving roughly 10,000 lives.

Whether your future holds a fire, flood or other emergency, solid planning and regular practice will improve your survival odds significantly. There's no foolproof plan, but when disaster strikes, you'll at least have given yourself a fighting chance.



To build your emergency evacuation plan, your best bet is to contact the disaster preparedness or emergency response agencies in your community. Begin by calling your fire department or the local chapter of the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross. Enter your home zip code in the space provided, and you'll get contact information for the local chapter. The site also contains an excellent, comprehensive 48-page publication called "Disaster Preparedness for People with Disabilities."

Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), (202) 646-4600. This site has solid information about preparing for a disaster. See in particular

Job Accommodation Network (JAN). This service of the U.S. Department of Labor offers a guide called "Employers' Guide to Including Employees with Disabilities in Emergency Evacuation Plans." Call (800) 526-7234.

U.S. Fire Administration, (301) 447-1000

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