CEPIN prepares special needs populations by creating connections

Top-down disaster management involves spreading a message broadly to an area affected by potential disasters, aiming to ensure safety for all during a crisis. Certain groups within a general population, namely the elderly, those for whom English is not a first language and those with functional needs, planning for a disaster and communication with emergency officials can be a more complicated process.

To address those with functional needs, The Community Emergency Preparedness Information Network (CEPIN) was launched in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That year DHS awarded Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (TDI) $1.5 million for the two-year project CEPIN project, which worked to establish a model community education course for emergency responders, managers, planners and deaf and hard of hearing citizens. The program has been used in nearly 50 towns and cities, ranging from small communities to major metropolitan areas.

CEPIN Outreach Coordinator Andrew J. Perlman spoke about CEPIN’s origins and about operating the online program for the deaf and hard of hearing community.

What were the accomplishments of CEPIN during the two-year, $1.5 million grant, and how are operations funded today?
The goal of the program was to develop a course that would build bridges between emergency responders/managers and individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing (known as consumers). CEPIN was the first of its kind to develop a DHS-certified training course for a specific disability group. To date, this program has been presented to over 40 communities across the nation and trained about 1,500 individuals. Funding for the workshops comes from the emergency management and the deaf/hard of hearing advocacy communities, who see the value of incorporating this program in their emergency planning process.

What successful models have been developed to reach disabled populations?
[One model is in] Faribault, a small Midwestern community of 23,000 in southern Minnesota that is the location for the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind. The city recognized the need to inform the significant numbers of consumers in their locality in the event of an emergency. The city, under the leadership of Fire Chief Mike Monge, began developing an accessible alerting system. Faribault provides emergency warnings and critical information, utilizing a variety of warning systems, but has two unique paging systems for warning consumers. The first program in Faribault’s Deaf Warning System utilizes an alphanumeric paging system that is common for paging and leaving written messages on a pager. The city worked with a vendor and was able to order pagers with a single “cap code” for any consumer who wanted to receive emergency information and updates. The consumer is responsible for purchasing the pager and the city is responsible for providing emergency information free to anyone who is on the system. Because it is a local system, the city can generate its own emergency messages at any time and does not depend on the state or any other outside agency. This system is used for all weather emergencies, hazardous materials incidents and any other emergency that requires information to be shared with the general public. When the state Academy for the deaf updated their plans for providing instant emergency information in their school, they purchased pagers and implemented the same plan so they could page individuals, groups or the entire staff as needed to provide instant information. Initially, the system was implemented to communicate information to instruct the teachers to lock down, relocate and evacuate their facility in emergency situations. The system is actually being used as a way to simplify routine communication throughout the school.

What are the more challenging barriers to connecting emergency responders and special needs populations? How have you worked around them?
Myths and misconceptions about individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing are common barriers, as well as inaccurate information about emergency responders. Unrealistic expectations of each community are a big issue. The CEPIN program, through constant interaction of consumers and responders throughout the day, brings these misconceptions to the table and helps manager expectations of both communities. Getting both groups more comfortable with each other goes a long way in breaking down communication barriers.

How does CEPIN differ from the top-down approach in disaster management – that direction to residents comes from state or federal departments?
We stress the importance of grassroots advocacy, which is a bottom-up approach to disaster management. As mentioned before, this has worked in Minnesota and Illinois and many other communities. Community-level programs such as these are very successful because local emergency managers maintain control over the program and are largely self-sufficient. The CEPIN program empowers consumers to be an integral part of their community disaster planning, as well as educating emergency managers to the value of including consumers in their disaster planning meetings.

Can this model be expanded to other at-need populations in areas at risk of disasters?
All vulnerable populations should be included in community disaster planning. Inclusiveness in disaster planning has been embraced by FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and he has mandated this across the agency. Plans are underway to address the needs of other functional needs groups, framed around the successes of the CEPIN program. In September, FEMA hosted a conference in Baltimore, Md., to stress the importance of functional needs inclusiveness in disaster planning. This was followed up one week later by a conference in St. Louis emphasizing the same. More outreach is being planned.

How do you hope to expand the program?
On-site training has been a cornerstone of success for community preparedness, and we will continue this program. In an effort to reach even more consumers and emergency managers, a web-based training program that utilizes the structure of our existing course is currently under development. This self-paced training will increase public awareness about the challenges people with functional needs face during disasters, examine gaps in emergency plans that serve the functional needs population and start the conversation needed to develop mutual understanding and respect between the functional needs and emergency management communities.