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Keeping Children with Disabilities Safe in Emergencies

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Children with disabilities sometimes have added challenges during an emergency situation compared to children without disabilities.  For instance, children with disabilities may have a hard time moving from one location to another, have difficulty communicating, or have trouble adjusting to different situations.  Additional preparation may be needed while planning for an emergency or disaster situation for children and youth with disabilities.

Prepare for an emergency to maintain calm in your family and keep children with disabilities safe.

What Can Families Do?

Keeping your family safe in emergency situations starts in the home. Here are some tips for you to follow at home to protect your family and your child with a disability—get a kit, make a plan, and be informed.

Get a Kit

Keeping a routine in an emergency will help your child stay calm.  Putting together a good kit is the first step. Be sure to include your children in the process. Let your children pick things that make them feel secure, such as a favorite book or food—even if it is not healthy.

Some basic items to include in your kit are:

  • Flashlight
  • Radio (hand-crank or battery-powered with extra batteries)
  • Water
  • First-aid kit
  • Can opener
  • Canned goods
  • Your Family’s Unique Needs
    • Medications
    • A small identification (ID) card or bracelet with information on key medications and emergency contacts for your child to keep with him or her at all times.
    • Special foods or formulas
    • Equipment or supplies, such as
      • Extra diapers
      • Extra batteries for small devices like hearing aids or assistive communication devices are helpful to have in a kit
      • A power source for a device your child uses. Families with children who require power for medical or other assistive devices should consider how they will maintain the use of these devices if there is a loss of power.
      • Consider obtaining a generator for home use (and make sure you learn to use it safely—see CDC’s website for helpful tips: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/cofacts.asp). Sometimes medical insurance programs will provide resources for generators, particularly if a child has a consistent need for breathing (respiratory) support. Keep a charger with you when away from home, especially when loss of power may risk health or safety.
Make a Plan

Knowing what to do in an emergency is just as important as having a kit. While it is important for you personally to be ready, a number of steps can help keep your entire family safe.

  • Make sure you have a way to reunite your family if separated at the time of the emergency. All children, including children with disabilities, do better in these situations when they are with their families. As a start, teach your child important names, phone numbers, and addresses. If your child is not able to learn these, make sure he or she has important contact information on him or her at all times. Practice the plan of what to do in case of an emergency. For some children, using a picture schedule or a written story may be helpful.   
  • If your child has medical or other special needs, write them down. It is helpful to have both an electronic and written copy of his or her history, daily care plan, important contacts, and other key information, such as the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  Here is a simple template for a child’s medical history to keep on hand.
  • Teach your child about emergency situations and what to do, such as calling 911.
  • Protecting your family will involve others, as well.
    • Sometimes local phone lines can be busy, so pick a family member out of town to be a contact for everyone to call or text.
    • Call your local police, fire department, and hospital to register your child’s special needs.
    • If your child has special legal documents (e.g., custody or guardianship), particularly if over the age of 18, a copy of these documents should be handy in the case of evacuation.
    • If someone else cares for your child during part of the day, make sure the caregiver knows what to do and who to contact in an emergency, too. This includes people who care for your child at school.
Be Informed

It’s important to know what’s happening with each of your family members and have a plan for when you are separated during the day.

  • Know the emergency plan in your child’s school and keep your emergency contact information up-to-date.
  • Have a close family friend as an extra person who could pick up your child if you or your spouse is not able to do so.
  • Teach your child to go only with someone who knows a secret “password” or “code word.” This word can be anything, like a favorite color or food.
  • In an emergency, talk to your child about what is happening. Be honest and explain the situation. It is better your child learn about it from you than from the media, which may not be age-appropriate. Set an example with your own actions by maintaining a sense of calm, even when you are distressed. This will help your family deal with any emergency.
  • Information can change quickly during an emergency. Watch and listen to the news so you can make the best, most informed decisions for you and your family.

What Can Healthcare Professionals Do?

As a healthcare professional, you have an important role in helping families prepare for emergencies. Healthcare professionals are trusted sources of information for families, and crucial for families with a child with a disability. Use the time you already have, like well-child visits, to talk to families and educate them about the importance of emergency preparedness. Families with a child with a disability understand the everyday challenges, but may not realize how much more difficult these challenges can be in an emergency. It is also important to remind families to talk with the school personnel who work with their child since it is possible that an emergency could occur while the child is in their care.

Help families make a list of things they might need in case of an emergency, including medications, batteries for assistive equipment, or any other special health care needs. Make sure families have a family communication plan in place and everyone knows who they can contact when they need help. An emergency is no time to be caught unprepared.

 

CDC’s Work

In 2012, CDC started a Children’s Preparedness Initiative to champion the needs of children in emergency preparedness and response efforts. Situated in the Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, this initiative has served to align CDC activities and engage partners in promoting the care of children in emergencies, including children with disability. About 66.5 million children are affected by natural disasters each year. Together, we can all play a role in protecting some of the most vulnerable of these children and keep them safe when disaster strikes.

 

Resources

Emergency Preparedness for Families with Special Needs

This is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) blog post about Julie and her son Zac, who has spina bifida. Their experience with Hurricane Katrina motivated them to always keep a month’s supply of Zac’s supplies in their emergency kit. 

Caring for Children in a Disaster

This web site from CDC has information for families, schools, and healthcare providers.

“Ready.gov – Kids”

This web site from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has games and activities for children to learn all about emergency preparedness.

Children and Disasters

This web site has information and resources from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

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