How to Overcome the Challenges of Building a Special Needs Directory

Picture of Samantha Hoppe By Samantha Hoppe

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Special Needs DirectorySpecial Needs Directories not only provide valuable information to first responders in emergencies, they also help state and local governments prepare for when adverse events occur. However, there are challenges to building a Special Needs Directory. Fortunately there is also a solution.

No region of the United States is disaster-free. From widespread events such as hurricanes and forest fires, to localized events such as mudslides and tornadoes, disasters can occur everywhere. When they do, communities suffer loss of life, physical injury, emotional trauma, and property damage.

Residents with special needs are particularly vulnerable during disasters. Depending on their particular vulnerability, they may not have the physical or cognitive ability to evacuate or care for themselves during a disaster, or seek help when a disaster is over and they need to rebuild their lives.

In ten states and numerous counties, state and local governments have responded to their vulnerable communities by building special needs directories. Others have built directories for specific needs - for example, Maine has a special needs directory for residents who are hard of hearing.

These directories work inasmuch as emergency planners can ensure the resources are in place to assist vulnerable communities before, during, and after a disaster; and first responders know where to target search and rescue missions. However, building a special needs directory has its challenges.

The Challenges of Building a Special Needs Directory

The initial challenge of building a special needs directory is funding. Cash-strapped state and local governments not only have to build a directory, but populate and maintain it so it is always accessible at a moment's notice. Then there are issues such as:

  • How do you populate the directory?
  • What information needs to be recorded?
  • What is the inclusion criteria?
  • How do you account for temporary incapacity?
  • What are the expectations of residents?
  • What information can be shared during a disaster?

The issue of what information can be shared during a disaster has, in the past, prevented collaboration between agencies due to concerns over violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), which includes a Privacy Rule to protect personal health information.

There have been issues with different agencies using incompatible data sets, some maintaining paper databases while others use computerized databases, and data being out-of-date or reliant on landlines numbers rather than cellphone numbers. The organizational challenges can be immense.

However, possibly a bigger challenge of building a self-registering special needs directory is how to get residents with special needs to register. Many elderly and physically disabled residents do not perceive themselves as vulnerable - even though they may not be able to cope in an emergency.

Then there are other categories of resident who one would not describe as vulnerable, but who may need special assistance during a disaster - i.e. pet owners and residents with limited English. It has been estimated that a special needs directory encompassing every resident potentially in need of help during a disaster would account for between 30% and 45% of the population.

Related Article: How California's Disaster Communication Plan Failed Residents  During Deadly Wildfires

How to Overcome the Challenges

The solution is a nationwide web-based system that is not marketed as a “special needs directory”, but as a preparedness directory or source of information for first responders in the event of an emergency - for example a household fire or missing child. The directory would be self-maintained by residents, who would be sent periodic reminders to refresh their data if necessary.

Residents would not have to disclose every piece of information about themselves - only what would be relevant in the event of an emergency. However, they would have to agree to a privacy policy that states the information entered into the directory can be accessed by emergency managers and emergency personnel.

This should resolve the issues of residents being unwilling to register on the directory, agencies being unable to share data sets, and the data sets being incompatible. As residents will be responsible for keeping their information up-to-date, this will resolve the cost issue of building and maintaining a special needs directory, plus address the issue of temporary incapacities.

By encouraging the whole community to participate, emergency managers will have access to more complete information than through registries that are restricted to people with “special needs”. Furthermore, if residents are encourage to include their mobile numbers, the database could be used as a more reliable emergency notification system than one which relies on landline numbers.

Smart911 from Rave Mobile Safety

Smart911 from Rave Mobile Safety is a web-based service that enables residents to create online safety profiles that call dispatchers can access to best assist 9-1-1 callers. The profiles can also be accessed by emergency managers to ensure the right resources are in the right place at the right time, and to prioritize search and rescue efforts.

The online safety profiles can be used to highlight what assistance residents would require during an emergency, and also by businesses to provide information about their facilities ahead of any emergency. Having such information available at call dispatchers´ fingertips shortens the process of gathering background information and accelerates emergency response.

The Smart911 system fulfills all the requirements of a special needs directory without jurisdictions having to build their own databases and overcome the associated challenges. The system current protects over 45 million people nationwide and, via the Smart911 app, also acts as an effective emergency notification system that can be managed by geographical location.

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Written by Samantha Hoppe

Sam Hoppe is Rave's Digital Marketing Specialist. She works closely with the Rave team on emails, blogs, and the website. Favorite topics include state and local government issues, emergency management, current events and feel-good stories. A New Jersey native turned Bostonian, you can find Sam exploring new bars and restaurants or enjoying live shows across the city.

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