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Gaps Seen in Evacuation of Disabled

by Malcolm Ritter

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) - It’s one of the best-known stories of the World Trade Center disaster: Michael Benfante and a friend plucking a woman from her wheelchair in a 68th-floor office and bringing her to safety.

Benfante, 36, recalled that when he encountered the woman, there was a lightweight emergency chair folded up nearby that was designed for getting a disabled person down stairs.
But “nobody was doing anything,’’ he said. So he unfolded the chair and strapped the woman in. While the chair was designed to be mobile, he said he and a friend decided to simply carry her in it because she was light.

Benfante’s experience raises a question that extends beyond the Sept. 11disaster: Just how well prepared are big office buildings to evacuate disabled employees?

It’s not clear how common special evacuation provisions for disabled workers are in such buildings. One expert said that concern shouldn’t be used to limit where disabled people can work; another recommended that employees with disabilities take an active role in making sure their needs are anticipated.

June Kailes, a Los Angeles consultant on disability issues who works on disaster preparedness, said disabled workers should be involved in drawing up evacuation plans.

“People with disabilities need to be consulted and at the table as these plans are really put together, reviewed and practiced,’’ she said.

Special planning for disabled workers is essentially required under the Americans with Disabilities Act for buildings with evacuation plans, although the Act doesn’t impose specific requirements, said Larry Perry, 
author of a building managers guide to emergency planning.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says employees should be made aware of disabled colleagues who may need extra help in evacuating, possibly through a buddy system.

Perry said he believes most large buildings with evacuation plans have special provisions for the disabled. Those include things like the special emergency chairs for stairs and designating people to help disabled workers.

Edwina Juillet, head of an organization called Fire and Life Safety for Persons with Disabilities, believes many large buildings have such procedures in place.

“But are they universally understood by the people who are going to be affected by them? No,” she said. “They’re not being rehearsed.”

Brian Black, director of building codes and standards for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, said his own experience is that while large buildings generally do have evacuation plans, provisions for disabled workers are “hit and miss.”

Black says the greater threat to safety for disabled people is the fire danger at home.

“I certainly share the concern of others around the country about keeping people safe no matter where they are, and being disabled shouldn’t make any 
difference,’’ he said. “But the unfortunate thing is we’re all looking at this type of problem, when in fact the problem ... is in residential construction.”

Marcie Roth, director of advocacy and public policy at the National Council on Independent Living, said plans to evacuate workers with limited mobility could benefit able-bodied people as well, because they may become injured in an emergency.

She also said concern over evacuation safety for disabled people shouldn’t be used to limit where they are allowed to work or go.

“Some people have suggested we need to be thinking about who works on what floors. I think that’s ridiculous,” Roth said.

“We have lots and lots of tall buildings in this country. Assisting people out of those tall buildings is a challenge, but it’s not a challenge that’s specific to people with disabilities.”

On the Net:

Federal publication, “Emergency Procedures for Employees with Disabilities in Office Occupancies:” http://www.usfa.fema.gov/usfapubs/pubs-display.cfm

Red Cross information: http://www.redcross.org/services/disaster/beprepared/disability.html

Disaster preparedness information for people with disabilities: 
http://www.jik.com/disaster.html

Report, “Disaster Mitigation for Persons with Disabilities:”
http://www.its.uiowa.edu/law

Reprinted with permission of 
The Associated Press.

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