Make the Protection of Children With Special Needs a Top Priority

Children, especially ones with special physical, developmental, behavioral or emotional needs, require consideration, mention and attention in disaster planning and drills.

A child with autism runs from the classroom and hides when the ground begins to rumble in an earthquake. The guide dog for the visually impaired student attacks the officer in full bomb squad gear. Six students in wheelchairs must be quickly moved from the third floor to the first floor out of the path of a tornado, and the power is already out. Would these be highly unusual events for a campus emergency? If we review the literature carefully, we would find they are certainly not beyond the realm of possibility.

The Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards (PETS) Act was passed in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina to address the care of pets after a disaster. Although we have passed a law designed to protect our dogs and cats, the same can’t be said for children. Somehow we expect that adults will automatically take whatever steps are necessary to protect our sons and daughters. No new law concerning evacuation and transportation standards for children or children with special needs was passed after Katrina. Children, especially children with special needs, require special consideration, mention and attention in disaster planning and practicing.

Children with special needs may not be as resilient as children without special needs. Schools, childcare facilities, juvenile justice centers, group homes, juvenile mental health facilities, hospitals and day camps need to address emergency planning for children with special needs in their own facility and in the broader community.

1st Responders Must Communicate Appropriately
Children are not just short adults, nor can they be grouped with adult special needs populations. Children can be afraid and disoriented. They must be reassured they are safe and adults will help them. Responders need to talk calmly to children, who fear their world is no longer safe and predictable. They might also fear that bad things will happen again, and they and their family may be hurt or killed. Damage, injury and death are hard for them to understand. How adult first responders act impacts how children with special needs react.

To adequately respond to children’s special needs in time of emergency, information about their medical condition as well as the type and amount of care beyond that required for children without special needs must be identified and documented in a central place and manner easily accessed in an emergency.  (See Child’s Information Must Be Readily Available During a Crisis below.)

Who Has Special Needs on Your Campus?
It is extremely important to determine which children have special needs. These children include the visually impaired child or the child of a visually impaired parent; hearing impaired child (or parent); mobility impaired child (or parent); the child of a single working parent; non-English speaking child (or parent); child of a parent without a vehicle; child with special dietary needs; child with medical conditions; child with intellectual disabilities and a child with dementia.

The visually impaired child might not want to evacuate when the order comes from a stranger. Many children with special needs are hypersensitive to changes in routine. A confused or frightened guide dog might not cooperate. The visually impaired child will not see smoke, flames or strobe lights. The hearing impaired child will not hear the warning alarms or public address messages, and will later need special telecommunications such as Fed Relay of the GSA to communicate with family. The mobility impaired child cannot run or crawl to safety.

The single working parent and parents without vehicles will not be able to come to the family reunification sight. The non-English speaking parents and their children will face obstacles similar to those of the hearing impaired children and parents. Children with autism, mood disorders and schizophrenia may become withdrawn, run away or act out. Children using respirators, feeding tubes, oxygen, insulin, dialysis, ostomy supplies, suction equipment, urinary, bowel and sanitary supplies and equipment must be sheltered in a place with that equipment and emergency power to operate it. The emergency plan needs to address universal precautions and disposal of biohazards, as well as transfer of children in wheelchairs from upper floors when power outages prevent using elevators. 

Some children with special needs will require a special needs shelter, some will require acute care in a hospital, while others will adapt to wheelchair accessible public shelter. Others may shelter at home, and most will need electricity, gas and water. Adults must be prepared to shelter in place these children in their care for up to 10 days. Some children with special needs will have with them their personal care assistant, whose needs must also be provided for.

Each child with special needs deserves an individualized emergency plan adapted to their personal circumstances.

Enlist the Help of Parents and Teachers
Parents and teachers should talk with children about the emergency workers who might help in disasters and the uniforms and equipment they might be wearing, including fire suits, police and sheriff uniforms, hazardous materials suits, bomb squad suits, guns, brightly colored uniforms and protective face gear. Children should be taught to not be afraid of emergency officials and to go to them for help, listen to them and follow their instructions to be safe.

Additionally, a community’s approach to planning and drills must cover hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, high winds, fog, earthquakes, plane crashes, pandemic disease, terrorism, and toxic substances, chemical spills and releases, including those from  methamphetamine labs. All have the potential to cause death, injury, property damage and the displacement of children, including children with special needs.

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