Disasters and emergencies: Leave no-one behind

Road Closed signs and a barrier of a road that reaches down to swollen river.‘Leave no-one behind’ is the tag line for the Sustainable Development Goals. In disaster management this idea takes on a very practical meaning. People with disability are two to four times more likely to die or be injured in a disaster than the general population. So why is our planning and risk reduction failing people with disability?

Being able to attend community meetings to find out what to do in an emergency is one factor. Having more than one person in the household with disability is another. Community education and plans assume everyone can get out of the house with a few belongings, get in the car and drive to safety. But some of the problem is that people with disability don’t make a plan or don’t tell anyone their plan. 

There is no nationally consistent standard for including people with disability in disaster risk reduction. An article in The Conversation explains some of the research into this. It includes the comments made by people with disability when asked about disaster planning. One such comment is very telling,

“But I spoke to three different people who had three different disabilities, and you realise that the communication has to be targeted. Because those three people required completely different things. And the information they got was not in a mode which they could use.”

Four men with orange lifejackets are standing in a yellow State Emergency Service boat on a swollen river.The title of the article in The Conversation is, ‘Nobody checked on us’: what people with disability told us about their experiences of disasters and emergencies

The academic version was published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. The title of the paper is, Applying a person-centred capability framework to inform targeted action on Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction, and is available from ScienceDirect.  

Key points from the study are:

• Disability Inclusive Disaster Risk Reduction requires collaboration with people with disability to remove barriers that increase risk in emergencies.

• The Person-Centred Emergency Preparedness framework directs attention to the choices that people with disability have in emergency situations and factors that enable or limit them.

• Findings can be used to support implementation of Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience by defining person-centred responsibilities of people with disability and service providers in emergencies.

“Findings from this study enabled deep insight into the diversity and interrelatedness of factors that increase the vulnerability of people with disability and their support networks to disaster; offering new perspectives on why Australian’s with disability are disproportionately affected by disaster. The Capability Approach is used to consider what is required for stakeholders to work together across sectors to increase the safety and resilience of people with disability to disaster.”

Universally designed emergency management

With the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the need to have inclusive emergency systems is paramount. While there is some awareness of people with disability within emergency management, there are few tools that embrace universal design principles. Research in this area has focused on the general public, but not on stakeholders such as first responders, control room personnel and decision makers. The Australian experience last summer meant that many of us turned to our mobile phones and downloaded apps to keep us up to date on our situation. But how inclusive are they?

A research paper from Norway takes the topic of emergency management beyond the physical environment, such as escape routes, to communications technology. Appropriate technology can improve disaster management for everyone.

The paper is a literature review of universal design methods in emergency management. Among the findings was awareness of people with disability was increasing and systems were being adapted accordingly. However, gaps remain. Some of these are:

    • Most of the work on ICT tools and platforms for Emergency Management does not take into account Universal Design nor accessibility.
    • There is a lack of communication support between emergency medical responders and people that are deaf.
    • In use of social networks in emergency situations, the age gap was identified as significantly more severe than the disability gap.
    • Good efforts towards accessible tools and platforms exist, but most of them are on the conceptual or at best on the prototype level.
    • Research on the use of assistive technology by older adults during disasters is a neglected issue.
    • Accessibility is often limited to access to Internet, rather than concerning the diversity of stakeholders and their access to digital solutions in Emergency Management.

They also found that participatory design methods gave best results but were rarely used. Maps for visualising disasters were unlikely to be accessible, but had high value for users. The article is comprehensive and covers every aspect of emergency and disaster management, particularly from the perspective of emergency personnel. 

The title of the article is, Universal Design of ICT for Emergency Management from Stakeholders’ Perspective. It is open source.

Abstract: While Universal Design principles have been adopted in many areas to ensure that products and services are usable for the broadest possible diversity of users, there is still an open area when it comes to the emergency management domain. This article aims at providing a systematic overview of the current state of the emerging research field of Universal Design of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Emergency Management, and to highlight high-impact research opportunities to ensure that the increasing introduction of ICT in Emergency Management can contribute to removing barriers instead of adding more barriers, in particular for the elderly and people with disabilities. A systematic review on relevant literature on Universal Design, ICT and Emergency Management between 2008 and 2020 was employed using predefined frameworks, to answer the following questions: (1) Who are the target audiences (stakeholders) in research on Universal Design of ICT in Emergency Management in the different categories of Emergency Management ICT tools, and to what degree is Human-Centred Design and Universal Design taken into account? (2) What are the most important challenges and gaps in research on Universal Design of ICT in Emergency Management? We identify a set of gaps in the literature, indicating that there are some challenges where Universal Design is still limitedly addressed in technology development. We also derive promising future research topics based on areas that are missing in the literature.

Situation Awareness and Universal Design

A smartphone with a map and wording of Fires Near Me. It is the app of the NSW Rural Fire Service.Why do some people appear unable to take in what is happening around them in an emergency? Being able to act quickly requires a good sense of the situation – situation awareness. However, not everyone has situation awareness in an emergency. Consequently they find decision-making difficult and fail to act appropriately. A Norwegian study has investigated a universal design approach to mitigate “situational disability”.

In an emergency, sight, hearing, use of hands and ability to concentrate can all be impaired. Smoke, dust, cold, noise and paralysis from fear can affect anyone’s ability to think clearly. Smart phone apps are a good way of reaching people quickly with important information, but do they account for likely cognitive and physical changes?

The issues and solutions for situational disability are outlined in a technical paper from Norway. It raises our awareness that individuals are likely to behave in unexpected ways during a disaster. With an increased rate of climate-based disasters, and the move to digital information systems, this is a timely study. The underlying concern of how people respond is an important one. The paper shows that universal design principles can guide the way in accommodating situational disabilities.

The full title of the article is, Towards Situational Disability-aware Universally Designed Information Support Systems for Enhanced Situational Awareness.