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Disaster for disabled

In February, I wrote a series for this newspaper on multi-storey buildings and the need for comprehensive occupational safety and health plans for such facilities. The series presented varying scenarios and the implications of what could happen if a disaster ever impacted any of the multistorey structures now dotting the skyline of the country.

It asked the following: What are the emergency planning issues that must be addressed when a disabled person resides in a multi-story building? The final question of that series asked: Are businesses and/or Government departments and ministries that occupy multistorey buildings and employ disabled persons, planning for their safety, inclusive of evacuation in case of major emergencies?

My private research told me then that there were no definitive plans or procedures in place to meet the needs of disabled employees in the workplace either in government or in the private sector.

Yesterday, the BBC reported that a fire of an unknown origin at a Berlin Germany workshop for the disabled killed 14 people and severely injured eight others. Flames were first spotted on the roof of the modern three-storey building which the town’s mayor said was “fairly new”.

The centre, located in the Black Forest town of Titisee-Neustadt, some 40kilometres east of Freiburg in Berlin, employs over 120 people with either mental or physical disabilities in a variety of jobs, including metalwork, woodwork and electrical installation, and is run by the Catholic Church’s Caritas organisation. The report said that about 50 people were believed to be in the building when the fire started, which more than 100 firefighters and helicopters were reported to have arrived on the scene six minutes after notification.

Ten months after my series, that fire in Germany reiterates my view that if such an event occurred here the unfolding tragedy would be immense. The impact of the Campus Trendz fire and the need for the introduction of the much debated building authority is still a major talking point among responders and residents in Barbados. Government stated that the Occupational Safety and Health Act passed in parliament in 2005 would be finally proclaimed on January 1, 2013. Government did not at the time of the OSH proclamation announcement, give any indication that definitive emergency plans and systems would be introduced for its multistorey housing complexes being built.

However, the NHC’s Valery Complex, which is almost ready for occupation, does provide plans for accommodating the disabled living at Valery. The Valery complex will include a separate block for disabled residents and apartments on ground floors of the two buildings were also being made disabled ready.

There are between 31 million and 36 million Americans with disabilities, compared to approximately 18,000 persons in Barbados. That number does not include persons who may be temporarily disabled, or persons who have not declared their disability for personal reasons, suggesting that the number may be higher.

For the millions of people with disabilities around the world, surviving a disaster can be just the beginning of a greater struggle. In the opinion of many in the Barbadian disabled community, the need to plan for emergency situations including chemical and industrial fires, natural gas explosions, transportation accidents, floods, earthquakes, severe flooding, hurricanes, power outages, receives more “lip service” than actual definitive action that can been seen in physical structural alterations to buildings.

From an emergency management perspective, the terms “handicapped” and “disabled” can be defined as any condition that drastically limits or prevents a person from performing a major life function. Those functions affected by that condition may be: physical, mental, motor, sensory or developmental. In addition, basic distinctions must also be made between the terms “impairment”, “disability”, and “handicap”.

Impairment is an anatomic or functional abnormality or loss which may or may not result in a disability. A disability is a loss or reduction of functional ability which results from an impairment. A handicap is the disadvantage caused by the disability.

Therefore, impairment is a medical condition, disability the functional consequence, and the handicap is the social consequence. In other words, the spinal condition of a paraplegic is their impairment. Their inability to walk is the disability, and the problems associated in achieving access to and egress from buildings, public transport vehicles or places of entertainment including cinemas is the social consequence.

For people with disabilities, barrier free, as well as, barrier-ridden environments become a great deal more hostile and difficult to deal with during and after an emergency especially at night. For example, people with physical disabilities may have a reduced ability to get to accessible exits, as well as reduced access to their personal items and emergency supplies if at home.

People with vision and hearing loss, and people with speech related disabilities often encounter many technological barriers especially when accessing regular communication channels which are down or overloaded. These barriers severely affect the disabled at a time when rapid communication may be crucial to survival and safety.

Emergency or disaster planning includes preparing organisations and staff to deal with natural and man-made disasters; to support people with disabilities in preparing for a response. It also includes the providing of education and information programmes, to ensure that first responders and government authorities are fully prepared to address the needs of people with disabilities in the event of an emergency.

Often the needs of people with disabilities in emergency preparedness in multistorey buildings are unaddressed or plans are not well defined and coordinated, leaving individuals with disabilities unnecessarily vulnerable in the event of an emergency.

During the last two decades in Barbados the number of emergencies and disasters resulting in evacuations has risen as populations in residential areas have expanded into areas more exposed to natural and technological hazards. Likewise, technology and its associated sophistication have also highlighted infrastructural access communication weaknesses in the system as it strives to adapt to the needs of the disabled.

The critical needs of individuals with disabilities during an emergency include the evacuation to transportation systems to evacuate a particular location. Getting residents out of a threatened commercial or private facility in the event of any kind of a disaster for disabled persons must be a priority when planning for residents living or working in multi-storey buildings.

As the German community mourns for those lost in yesterday’s tragedy, let us learn from the lessons gleaned from that fire and comprehensively plan for our disabled community, so that we may avert a repeat of yesterday, since we have not yet learnt from Campus Trendz.

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