Involving Key Personnel

While planning for every situation that may occur in an emergency is impossible, being as prepared as possible is important. One way of accomplishing this is to consider the perspectives of various individuals and entities — from senior staff and employees with disabilities to first-responders and agencies in nearby space. Involving these key groups early on will help everyone understand the existing state of plans and the challenges that each stakeholder group faces, whether it is related to physical, sensory, or cognitive ability, or personnel, budget, or resources.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) guidance reminds managers, "[E]mployees will look to you for support in a time of emergency. It is important that you understand the plan your agency has in place..." 7


  • Are there individuals with disabilities involved in the planning process? If so, do their perspectives represent the broader views of the disability community?

    Note: Not only is it important that many types of disabilities are represented (i.e., vision, mobility, cognitive, developmental, and hearing), but the ideas presented should encompass the views and needs of many individuals within a particular disability category.

    Example: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) utilizes the Incident Command System (ICS) to enable the Special Needs Advisor to evaluate all emergency preparedness activities. This individual provides input on all emergency plans for personnel and visitor movement (evacuation and shelter-in-place), communication systems (purchases and upgrades), as well as training programs and schedules.

    The Special Needs Advisor also studies the potential impact of policies under consideration by the USDA ICS. If a suggested program or system negatively impacts one of the four-major disability categories (vision, mobility, cognitive and hearing), then changes are made to ensure all have access to the information or program. Often, accommodations that are made for individuals with disabilities have benefited the entire building population.
  • The active support and understanding of senior staff is essential to bringing about effective and lasting change. Do senior-level staff understand and support the plan or the need to make changes, so as to include people with disabilities?

    Note: One possible method of getting management on board is to present the risk(s) for the organization (i.e., One person getting hurt will impact more than 100 people.).

    Example: The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) accomplished this critical step through a Secretarial memorandum to the agency's key leaders. The memorandum demonstrated both the significance of this issue to all the Departmental employees and the Secretary's commitment to individuals with disabilities. For example, the memorandum designated specific roles and responsibilities in developing the emergency preparedness plan. It also required that people with disabilities be involved in the plan development, and mandated that the DOT Secretary be provided a summary of steps that had been or would be taken (to fulfill the responsibilities and roles delineated). Accordingly, implementation and maintenance of the plan met with little resistance.
  • First-responders and service providers are a valuable resource during this phase of the process. They can provide input on the feasibility of plans, as well as coordinate response efforts with an agency.

    Example: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) headquarters has its own command center, which is also connected to the police department. The agency has worked closely with authorities to establish protocols regarding who will respond in specific situations. Sometimes the trained DOL staff (e.g., security personnel) handle issues, while local entities are called in other times.

    Example: According to Kathy Hargett of the President's Committee on People with Intellectual Disabilities, in anticipation of possible computer or electrical outages at the change of the Millennium, the New York City Regional Office for Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities (NYCRO MR/DD), in partnership with service providers, developed emergency plans for those whom they serve. These plans included identifying the location of 65,000 individuals; establishing alternative respite and residential facilities to accommodate them; and having a 7-day, portable supply of medications. In addition, these partners participated in training exercises prior to the end of 1999.

    On September 11, 2001, these plans resulted in the identification and safe evacuation of more than 2,000 people with mental retardation/developmental disabilities (MR/DD) in the area around the World Trade Center. This included people with profound MR/DD in addition to those with higher functioning abilities.8
  • Working with facilities personnel and agencies in nearby or adjacent spaces ensures that the plan meets federal and local requirements, and does not conflict with established procedures.

    Example: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) headquarters worked with nearby employers and first-responders to designate assembly areas following an evacuation. The agency also consulted security and facilities personnel to free evacuation routes of barriers (e.g., construction, security barricades, etc.).

In Focus: Engaging the Disability Community

Not sure of ways to engage the disability community?
Here are a few places to start:

  • Federal Agency Disability Advisory Councils — These informal groups of federal employees often have regular meetings. Check with disability program managers in the agency for more information.
  • National disability organizations and/or their local affiliates — There are several national cross-disability organizations as well as a number of disability-specific organizations with local affiliates. Check the Web or phone book for more information.
  • State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies — In addition to providing employment-related services, Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) offices assist people with disabilities in living as independently as possible by providing services and educating the public. They may be listed under Vocational Rehabilitation, Rehabilitation Services Administration, or Rehabilitation on the Web or in the phone book. A complete listing may be found at
  • Centers for Independent Living (CILs) — These community-based resource and advocacy centers are managed by and for people with disabilities. Approximately 550 CILs throughout the United States promote independent living and equal access for all persons with physical, mental, cognitive, and sensory disabilities. Visit for a listing of centers.
  • State or local government committee, commission, or council on disabilities — These are often part of the Governor's office or cabinet.
  • Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) regional offices — The VA provides education and training; compensation and benefits; medical care, as well as other services to the nation's veterans and their families. Visit for more information.
  • Community-based nonprofit organizations and agencies — There are a variety of community-based organizations and agencies that work with people with disabilities. Check local listings for more information.
  • Local ADA coordinators Contact the mayor's office or the county government office for more information.
  • Citizen Corps Councils — With over 1,600 Citizen Corps Councils nationwide, these councils coordinate the grassroots emergency preparedness efforts of volunteer programs, elected officials, business, emergency managers and citizens. The National Citizen Corps Council, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has convened a subcommittee of various national disability consumer advocacy organizations to address the issues emergency preparedness and response as it related to individuals with varying abilities. 

Critical Questions

  • Are key staff familiar with the Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP)?
  • Are individuals with disabilities involved in all aspects of emergency preparedness? If not, what steps have been taken to engage the disability community? Have the broad perspectives of the disability community been considered?
  • Do senior staff support the process of updating your agency plan? If not, what steps will be taken to change this?
  • Has the plan been reviewed by first-responders and facilities personnel?
  • Does any part of the plan conflict with procedures established by nearby agencies?

Regional and Field Offices

Approximately 84 percent of all federal employees work outside the National Capital Region (NCR). Not only do field representatives carry out many of the federal programs, but they also serve as the Federal Government's principal means of contact with citizens. Regional and field offices face unique challenges when it comes to emergency preparedness planning. Given their unique function and locations, these offices must consider the needs of employees with disabilities, personnel previously unidentified as having a disability, and the public. It is also essential that federal safety plans take into account the plans of agencies and/or businesses in adjacent space. Below are a few factors to consider when developing, implementing, and maintaining plans, including those for field offices.


  • Federal agencies that share building space with private companies or other federal agencies must consider how another plan (or lack thereof) will affect their own.

    Note: Federal agencies throughout the country have unique characteristics. Some are located in government-built and owned buildings, while others are located in privately- owned buildings. Some are sole occupants, while others share space with other federal agencies or private employers. Some occupy entire campuses, while others may be isolated industrial-style facilities, such as warehouses. Regardless, a coordinated approach to evacuation or shelter-in-place is essential to ensure the safety of all building occupants.
  • Determine what effect the agency's location will have on egress routes and access to resources.

    Note: Busy streets, construction, and security barriers can all hinder an individual's ability to evacuate. Individuals in rural areas may have difficulty getting home in the event of an emergency, especially if they rely on para-transit services. Working with local first-responders, city officials, and building personnel is essential.
  • Take into account the personnel and visitors in the building on an average day.

    Note: Some federal agencies have very few non-government personnel in the building. Other offices, especially those that provide services to the public, have a constant flow of visitors and non-government personnel.
  • Be aware of employees' needs; however, remember to also consider the needs of others in the building. This may include children in the daycare center, cafeteria workers, contractors, sales representatives, and personal visitors.

In Focus: Building Security Committees

Security needs vary by location, even among facilities at the same security level. In order to adequately address security concerns at each facility under the control of U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Building Security Committees (BSCs) have been established. These Committees, which meet regularly as well as whenever the building tenants or an agency's mission changes, consist of representative(s) from each of the federal agencies occupying a particular building. In addition to ensuring people follow building security practices and employees receive training related to the Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP) and security awareness, the BSCs must continually evaluate the building security standards.

Routine security assessments (using the U.S. Department of Justice's Vulnerability Assessment of Federal Facilities standards) are typically conducted by a Federal Protective Service (FPS) Inspector or Physical Security Specialist (PSS) designated by the FPS/DHS. The findings from the assessments are shared, discussed, and validated with the BSC. The Committee then conveys its recommendations and cost estimates to GSA.

To determine if an agency has BSC representation, contact a FPS/DHS regional office. More information can be found at

Critical Questions

  • Is the building inside or outside the National Capital Region (NCR)?
  • Does the agency partially occupy, but not control, the building?
  • What is the approximate number of occupants?
  • Does the agency have representation on the Building Security Committee (BSC)?
  • Does the building population consist mostly of Federal Government personnel? Are the personnel from the same agency or several federal agencies?
  • Do private sector businesses or state or local government agencies occupy a portion of the building?
  • What is the flow of employees and visitors and customers on a typical day and week?

Shelter-in-Place (SIP) Plans

Sheltering-in-Place means seeking immediate shelter and remaining there during an emergency rather than evacuating. Because evacuating may put individuals at greater risk of harm or injury, SIP may be the preferred method of safely waiting out a hazardous event. In most cases, the latter option only lasts a few hours. Advance preparation can help ensure that everyone remains as comfortable as possible. In some cases, occupants may be instructed to evacuate after a certain period of time. Generally, a SIP plan involves taking the following actions steps:

  • Shutting down the building's ventilation system as quickly as possible;
  • Turning off the elevators;
  • Closing all exits and entrances and securing the loading dock and garage areas;
  • Notifying occupants and visitors — via an audible and visual public address system, phone, e-mail, pagers, etc. — of the event and emergency procedures, as well as providing updated information as needed; and
  • Asking everyone to remain in the building, until it is safe to leave.


  • Determine the action steps to be taken under given sets of emergency conditions. Include emergency scenarios that may occur without access to electrical power supplies. Identify and incorporate the steps needed to assist individuals with disabilities or special needs (see Evaluating Employee and Customer Needs). In the event of an actual emergency, responsible officials will be implementing pre-determined and approved protective actions.
  • Communicate the procedures for sheltering-in-place to all building occupants prior to an actual emergency, and mark all designated areas with clear signage.
  • Ensure there are multiple and redundant means of conveying timely information to both employees and visitors with disabilities, including deaf or hard of hearing individuals. Keep in mind that interpreters, transliterators, assistive listening devices, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) as well as other aids or services may not be available during the SIP.
  • Encourage staff to store any specific personal supplies (e.g., medications, supplies for service animals, etc.) they may need at their desks.

Example: The U.S. Department of Labor Headquarters has two separate procedures for sheltering-in-place, depending on the nature of the emergency. Posture I Advisory requires that employees and their visitors remain at their workstations and wait for further instruction. Posture II Advisory, used in situations deemed highly critical, requires that staff and visitors move to the nearest designated shelter-in-place. Employees are given laminated cards that provide written reminders of the procedures and designated areas. The information is also available on-line for those needing alternate formats. During both types of SIP, no one is allowed to leave or enter the building. The doors are locked for everyone's protection. Each SIP area has telephone(s) and secured cabinets, which are used to store food and other emergency supplies. There is enough food and supplies for both employees and visitors for a period of time. Floor Wardens, Zone Monitors, and security personnel have key access to these cabinets.

Note: Zoë Fearon of DOL's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management (OASAM) reminds employees and others that the length of time for a shelter-in-place is usually relatively short. "The need to shelter-in-place [due to an airborne substance] only lasts for 4-6 hours." Although agencies should prepare for their employees and visitors, Ms. Fearon urges staff to store any specific personal supplies (e.g., medications, supplies for service animals, assistive listening devices, extra batteries, etc.) at their desks. When the need for a shelter-in-place has passed, authorities explain the reason for it.

Example: U.S. Department of Agriculture Headquarters uses several communication systems to keep employees and visitors informed of situations that necessitate sheltering-in place. These include the Computer Emergency Notification System (CENS), the public address system, wireless email devices, and Local Area Network (LAN) televisions located throughout the complex. These same systems are used to communicate with employees and visitors with disabilities about obtaining assistance, if needed.

Storage lockers throughout the USDA facilities hold emergency supplies such as water, blankets, and medical supplies. The sheer number of employees prevents USDA from stocking enough supplies for everyone, so staff maintain personal Grab and Go kits, which contain at least a three-day supply of essential items (e.g., hearing aid batteries, supplies for service animals, and/or personal medical supplies).

The USDA has two SIP movements. Because almost all the offices in the headquarters complex have windows, employees and visitors are instructed to move to interior hallway spaces, closing windows and locking doors as they relocate. For lighter-than-air chemical, gas and biological events, occupants move to the lower three levels of the complex. For heavier-than-air chemical, gas and biological events, employees and visitors relocate to the upper three floors.

Elevators are used to re-locate persons with mobility impairments. Employees and visitors with mobility impairments are encouraged to self-identify to Floor Wardens, or to use the Warden Phones to obtain permission to use the elevators. By monitoring the weather (via the Emergency Command Center) and staying in close contact with other federal agencies, the USDA is able to use the elevators until just prior to the expected arrival time of the hazardous plume.

Critical Questions

  • Have the steps for evaluating an emergency situation and subsequent action been clearly defined, agreed upon, and communicated to all necessary staff?
  • Are there multiple methods in place to relay timely and relevant information to all staff and visitors?
  • Have all SIP areas been clearly marked?
  • Are plans in place that would allow for communication with all staff and visitors to the facility, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing or may have communication difficulties? If not, what steps are being taken to ensure that there are plans in place?
  • Are employees encouraged to keep extra medication or personal supplies at their desks?

Evaluating Employee and Customer Needs

Privacy is important. The Rehabilitation Act strictly limits how, when, and what type of information can be gathered about an employee's medical condition, even for purposes of emergency preparedness. Additionally, the Rehabilitation Act and U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) policies require that medical information be kept in a file separate from the employee's personnel file.


  • The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 gives agencies and federal contractors permission to gather pertinent information (i.e., the type(s) of emergency assistance an individual needs and how it relates to the individual's disability), and to disseminate it to necessary personnel.9

    Example: At the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a Self Identification/Needs Form has been used to collect the information. The form, developed by the agency's Disability Action Council (DAC), provides individuals with disabilities an opportunity to voluntarily self-identify their requirements and initiates an action by the Emergency Personnel. The form — which asks for an individual's contact information, work hours, supervisor's name, and the type of assistance needed — is also used in developing personal support networks, promoting cross training, and planning for evacuation. Several co-workers are typically identified to assist an individual, in the event that the primary person is unavailable.
  • It is important to reassure employees of confidentiality: that the information will be shared only with those responsible for safety and emergency preparedness.
  • Have a dialogue with employees. Communicate the reasons for gathering any medical information, and inform them that responding is voluntary. In addition, let employees know who will have access to the information.
  • There are three key points at which the information may be collected :10
    • Before Employment Begins: After a job offer has been made, but before employment commences, all entering employees in the same job category may be asked disability-related questions, including whether they would require assistance in the event of an emergency and what type of assistance would be necessary.
    • On the Job: All employees may be asked to voluntarily self-identify if they have impairments that would make assistance necessary in the event of an emergency. For those who respond affirmatively, employers may ask what type of assistance employees would need.
    • Employees with Obvious Disabilities: Even if an employer decides not to ask all employees to voluntarily self-identify as needing assistance in an emergency, employees with known disabilities may be asked whether and what type of assistance they may need in an emergency. An employer should not assume that employees with obvious disabilities will always need assistance during an evacuation. However, remember that people with cognitive or developmental disabilities may not have the judgment and cognitive skills required to articulate their needs. Generally, people with disabilities are in the best position to determine their own needs.
  • The Rehabilitation Act allows disclosure of medical information to first aid and safety personnel, as well as to those who are responsible for implementing the emergency preparedness plan.
  • Only medical information necessary to implement the emergency preparedness plan may be disclosed.
  • When making equipment decisions, it is best to talk with people with disabilities and other federal agencies, as well as work with local emergency response personnel and community organizations. Communicate regularly with these entities in order to educate new emergency response personnel and to keep abreast of new technology or procedures.
  • Those employees with service animals should be encouraged to relay to emergency management personnel their preferences with regard to evacuation and handling of the animal.

    Note: Although it may be difficult, encourage employees to think about under what circumstances they may have to make a decision about leaving the service animal behind, and share these preferences with the appropriate personnel.

In Focus: Determining Equipment Needs

One of the most critical aspects of implementing and maintaining an effective plan is determining the type of equipment necessary to keep individuals safe, whether it be during a shelter-in-place or an evacuation. There is no one model or piece of equipment that is appropriate for every situation or individual. There are currently no standards governing the type of equipment that must be provided for the safe evacuation of people with disabilities. However, below are a few issues to keep in mind during the selection and procurement decision-making process:

  • Consider keeping extra equipment (e.g., wheelchairs, assistive listening devices, simple communication boards) in central locations for employees or visitors.
  • Employees with disabilities are often a good resource for accommodation ideas. Remember to consider temporary impairments and hidden disabilities.
  • Contact other agencies, local first-responders and community organizations (e.g., fire and police departments, Centers for Independent Living, etc.) for input and feedback.
  • Taking into account all occupants and visitors may necessitate obtaining equipment different from that for specific individuals.

Additionally, architectural realities, budgetary constraints, and agency characteristics should be evaluated, since these factors undoubtedly impact equipment decisions.

When discussing the use of equipment in emergencies, two related aspects of evacuating people with mobility disabilities often arise: moving the individual (either by using a device or carrying the individual) and evacuating his or her personal mobility devices. Whatever the situation, it is essential to involve the individuals with a disability in the discussion. Keep in mind that some people have preferences about being moved and about the handling of their mobility devices.

Additional considerations include the following:

  • As is the case with any equipment, make sure people are trained on use of the device, and have regular practice sessions.
  • Carrying a person can be somewhat cumbersome and even dangerous. Talk with individuals to determine the best way to move them, making sure to rehearse the procedure.
  • If there is absolutely no one available to assist the individual, consider instructing him or her to go to a designated area and contact emergency personnel.
  • Think about implementing a plan that provides for the evacuation of mobility devices. This makes for a smoother transition for the employees who use these devices. Otherwise, employees will be essentially helpless upon fleeing from the emergency situation.

In Focus: Service Animals and Emergency Preparedness

Service animals assist people with disabilities with day-to-day activities. While most people may be familiar with guide dogs trained to assist people with visual impairments, service animals may be trained for a variety of tasks, depending on an individual's disability. These tasks may include alerting a person to sounds in the home and workplace, pulling a wheelchair or picking up items, or assisting with balance.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal "as any guide dog, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to an individual with a disability." Service animals do not have to be licensed or certified by state or local government. Under the ADA, they are permitted in private facilities that serve the public, including shelters, hospitals, and emergency vehicles; in state and local government facilities; and in the workplace.

A service animal can be excluded from a facility under the following rare circumstances:

  • The animal's behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others;
  • The animal's presence would result in a fundamental alteration to the nature of a business or a state or local government's program or activity; or
  • The animal would pose an "undue hardship" for an employer.

Such instances include when a service animal displays vicious behavior toward visitors or co-workers, or when a service animal is out of control. Even in these situations, the public accommodation, state or local government, or employer must give the individual with a disability the opportunity to enjoy its goods, services, programs, activities, and/or equal employment opportunities without the service animal (but perhaps with some other accommodation).

Keep in mind that the individual and his/her service animal are a team and should not be separated. The success of this working team is based not only on hours of practice, but also a personal bond. Typically, these animals are trained to remain with the individual and respond only to his or her commands, unless instructed otherwise. With this in mind, consider the talking the following actions in emergency preparedness:

  • Practice the evacuation drills with the individual and his/her service animal.
  • Discuss how to best assist if the service animal becomes hesitant or disoriented in the situation. Make sure everyone, including the service animal, is comfortable with this routine.
  • Notify first responders of the employee with a disability and his/her service animal.
  • Encourage the employee to keep extra food and supplies on hand for the service animal. Consider keeping supplies or food on hand for the service animals of visitors as well.

The Buddy System and Cross-Training

In a traditional buddy system, people pair up as partners to assist each other. For most people, the buddy system is a redundant and additional measure that supplements other means of notifying individuals about and responding to an emergency. A buddy can help ensure that an employee with a disability is informed about and appropriately responds to an emergency. It is important that buddies be able to communicate with and assist the employee with a disability.

Reliance on a single buddy can put the employee who needs assistance at risk, especially when the buddy is not present, able, or willing to assist during an emergency. Therefore, flexibility in an emergency preparedness plan is vital.

Note: According to Bruce McFarlane, Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Target Center, plans should not be based on the buddy or employee being in his or her own office at the time of an emergency. He believes that planning that is person or location dependent generally has glaring weaknesses. Consequently, he sees the buddy system as not exclusively effective, since it is both person and location dependent.

Having an effective procedure in place may mean augmenting the traditional buddy system with additional supports for the employee; in other words, have multiple individuals prepared to assist in an emergency, thus creating personal support networks. For example, the U.S. Access Board chose not to use the buddy system, given staff travel and training schedules and the agency size (less than 30 staff). Instead, staff who volunteered to work with people with disabilities during an emergency situation were cross-trained.

Note: Whether an agency utilizes the buddy system or personal support networks, Peg Blechman, a Compliance Specialist with the U.S. Access Board, recommends that "participation be voluntary, volunteers be cross-trained and have volunteers assemble at central location(s)." If the buddy or the employee is unavailable, a backup system should be utilized. Blechman emphasizes that redundancy is key!

With either approach, cross training is essential. Individuals (and their co-workers) needing to use emergency evacuation devices, such as evacuation chairs, should be trained regarding their proper operation. This will allow these employees to better direct others on the use of the equipment, in the event that "trained" personnel are not available.

Example: At the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA), evacuation chairs have been issued to every employee who will require a chair for emergency evacuation. Additionally, evacuation chairs have been mounted in or near every emergency stairwell above the ground floor in SSA space to accommodate visitors or individuals injured during an emergency, providing a rapid means of evacuation. Monitors are trained on the use of the chair and employees with disabilities are encouraged to participate in the training. Chair training is part of the Occupant Emergency Organization training conducted by SSA's Office of Protective Security Services, Office of Facilities Management, with its training partner, the University of Maryland's Fire and Rescue Institute at College Park, Maryland. Training occurs through various means, at SSA sites across the nation.

A few additional considerations:

  • Include training for those who work after normal business hours.
  • Check with buddies or personal support networks quarterly to make sure the individuals are still willing and able to assist in an emergency; also, be sure to notify them of changes in work schedules.
  • Consider one-on-one training or evaluation of evacuation devices for individuals who may be uncomfortable practicing evacuation procedures in a group setting.

Critical Questions

  • Has information about an employee's need for assistance in the event of an emergency evacuation been collected in a manner that is consistent with the Rehabilitation Act?
  • Have steps been taken to clearly communicate the reasons for gathering the information and the importance of maintaining the employee's confidentiality?
  • Has only the essential medical information been shared with just those who need to know (e.g., first aid personnel, safety staff, and those responsible for implementing the plan)?
  • Has the agency consulted with other agencies, entities, and individuals with disabilities in selecting equipment?
  • Are there employees with service animals? What specific plans have been put in place for individual and service animal teams? Have plans been made for visitors with service animals?
  • Have efforts been made to facilitate the establishment of personal support networks?
  • Have all employees needing and providing assistance had adequate training on equipment and emergency procedures?

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