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March 31, 2003

The fire next time

From: Newark Star Ledger, NJ - Mar 31, 2003

Whatever the emergency, evacuation planning is especially vital for the disabled

Monday, March 31, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Long before Sept. 11, 2001, Michael Hingson made it his business to know every escape route he could find out of the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Especially because he is blind, said Hingson, "one of the things I always felt was important was paying attention to details. I have to know how to travel."

He learned where all the stairwells and emergency exits were located in each of the Twin Towers. The former Westfield resident made sure he took part in every fire drill that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey held periodically at the World Trade Center, so that he would know how to react and how to leave quickly in an emergency.

"I made sure I learned the rules and, if there were any changes in procedures, I would know them."

Hingson, who worked on the 78th floor of the North Tower as a sales manager for Quantum ATL, also varied his routes daily into, out of and throughout the trade center complex so that his guide dog, Roselle, would learn them all and be able to successfully navigate any one of them should the need arise.

"The dog's not the brains of the outfit," joked Hingson, 53, who now lives in California and is the national public affairs representative for Guide Dogs for the Blind. "Her job is to guide, and I have to tell her where she needs to go through a series of commands. So, I need to know how to get to those places."

On the day of the terrorist attacks, Hingson made it down all 78 floors with Roselle at his side and a clear mental map of where he was going.

He's convinced his efforts to learn the World Trade Center's layout -- along with Roselle's competence and the mutual support Hingson gave and received from co-workers -- helped him to stay calm and be able to safely navigate his way out of the North Tower.

It's crucial for anyone to prepare themselves as best they can and to have an evacuation plan in place at work and at home in the event of an emergency. But it's especially critical for people with disabilities, a point that was driven home for many by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

"It's taken on a whole new meaning. The best thing a person can do is to have their own personal plan, in addition to whatever plan there already is" in place by your employer or by the managers of whatever facilities you frequent, said Javier Robles, deputy director of the New Jersey Division of Disability Services, part of the state Department of Human Services in Trenton.

"If 9/11 taught us anything, it's that we were not prepared enough. What we should expect is that anything can happen. If you expect that, then you should be prepared for that. One of the things you don't want to do, as an individual with a disability, is to wait until the last minute," said Robles, who is a quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair.

Here are recommendations from Robles and the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management on how disabled individuals can prepare a plan for a safe evacuation:

-- Know the law. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, any building or facility with access for the public must have an evacuation plan in place for disabled, as well as non-disabled, individuals. If you're a person with a disability and you're employed, ask your supervisor if there's an evacuation plan in place that takes into account people with disabilities, including your own. If the answer is no, Robles suggested, "Then, what you want to say is, 'Why don't we work together to put a plan together and see how we can get out of the building safely?' And then, talk about it.'"

You can take the same approach with the managers of your apartment building, as well as managers or owners of any building you visit frequently.

Work with your employer to learn about special equipment that can help you leave the building in a safe and quick way. This would include evacuation chairs specially designed to help a wheelchair user get down a stairway. There also are warning systems that include flashing lights, which can alert a deaf person to an emergency.

If you choose to buy your own equipment for an emergency evacuation, make an assessment of your physical limitations and capabilities before purchasing anything.

-- The New Jersey Office of Emergency Management recommends you set up a "personal support network" for your home, school, workplace and any other locations where you spend a good part of your day. Your network would include people you can depend on to alert you to a disaster or other emergency and provide assistance.

Make sure your employer, co-workers and neighbors know in advance that you will need help in an emergency. Be specific with what kind of assistance you will need. If you're deaf, for example, and a siren or loudspeaker would be used to alert your workplace or neighborhood of an emergency, make sure your network knows in advance to automatically notify you of an emergency because you may not be aware of it.

-- Take the lead from Michael Hingson and become very familiar with your surroundings. Get to know the building you work in, as well as other facilities you frequent. Learn the locations of emergency exits and stairwells. Don't forget to consider windows as potential escape routes.

-- If you aren't already doing this, get into the habit of scoping out any building or facility you enter, even if you don't often go there. Again, look for emergency exits and stairwells and other potentially good avenues of escape.

-- Identify several people who would be willing to help you evacuate. Don't rely on one person because he or she might not be around when an emergency takes place.

Show these people in advance how to operate any equipment you routinely use for your disability and let them practice using it until they are comfortable with it. The state Office of Emergency Management recommends you provide additional help by labeling your equipment and attaching instruction cards on how to use it.

-- Practice your escape plan with those who would be assisting you until everyone is completely familiar with it. Figure out how much time it's going to take you to leave the facility. If it's a multi-story building, practice your plan on different floors to learn the timing.

-- Make a floor plan of your house or apartment and identify main escape routes. In addition, mark those rooms in which you spend a lot of time. Doing so can help those in your network find you more quickly if there's a disaster or emergency.

-- Improve your ability to evacuate your home or office by checking for, and then removing, obstacles or hazards that could block your way. Include stairwells, hallways, windows and doorways. By doing this, you'll be able to provide yourself with several unobstructed escape routes.

-- Think about what you would do if the members of your network aren't around when you're faced with an emergency. Practice how you would give fast instructions to someone on the best way to help you or to operate equipment you need.

-- If you are unable to communicate orally, according to the state emergency management office, you may want to prepare in advance by writing down instructions you can give to people, such as: "I am blind/visually impaired. Please let my grasp your arm firmly"; "I have had a brain injury. Please write down all important instructions and information"; "I am deaf. Please write things down for me."

Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger.