Communication Challenges in an Emergency


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Once again, Emergency Plan Guide offers some tips for business or neighborhood CERT teams.  Today’s subject: communicating with people in a disaster situation.

 Last month we talked about the importance of succinct and clear radio communications. Today, succinct and clear are just as important, but this is a situation where you are dealing with a non-professional. It’s a situation that may be uncertain and unfamiliar to you both. Communication is going to be a challenge, no matter what.

Action Item: Use this Advisory to start a discussion in your group on potential problems. You are likely to be able to add more specifics based on your environment.

Person with disabilities

“Not getting through?!” 

In a big emergency, whether you are a concerned citizen, an Emergency Response Team member, or a First Responder dealing with victims or potential victims, you may find your words just not getting through!

You are asking urgent questions or giving urgent commands.

But the people you’re dealing with just aren’t responding!

Before you overreact and start yelling, run through this list in your mind. If you can identify one of these problems, and its solutions, you’ll have a better idea of what to do next for better communications.

Don’t forget to start by introducing yourself!

In any emergency situation, start by introducing yourself and why you are there.

For example: “My name is Joe, I’m a member of CERT, and I am here because there’s been an explosion and we need to move you to a safer location.”

Tell the person where they are going and what they need to take with them. If you know, tell them how long this move is likely to last. Repeat that it’s urgent that they get started . . . and that you are there to help.

If you know the person’s name, use it to start your sentences.

If the person has a care-giving companion, address your remarks to the person, not the companion!

What to do if the person doesn’t respond to your commands.

There are a number of things that could be preventing your audience from understanding your words and/or what they should do. Here are a few problems, with tips for how to address them.

The person doesn’t understand what you are saying.

1- Whether the person doesn’t hear well, doesn’t speak English well, or has mental health issues, here are some ideas for improving communication:

  • Make sure they know you are there to help. Get their attention by calling out and flicking the lights.
  • Get face to face with the person and at their level; don’t yell down at them or across the room.
  • Speak simply, clearly and slowly. Use hand gestures in speaking.
  • Repeat your commands or requests as necessary. If still no understanding, use DIFFERENT words to explain; don’t just repeat the same thing over and over.
  • Write your message on a paper, and let the person write back.

2- You are dealing with an elderly person who is resisting or confused.

  • Tell the person you are there to help.
  • If the person needs to leave the home, reassure them that this will only be temporary.
  • Gather medicines (or at least a list) and any portable medical equipment.
  • Let them know how and when they will be able to contact family.

 

What if the person isn’t able to follow your commands?

1- Person has a service animal and you aren’t sure how to proceed.

  • The animal must be kept with its owner. A service animal is like an extension of the person – it is not a pet.
  • The service animal must be on a leash or in a harness but does not need a muzzle.
  • Don’t try to give the animal instructions or use its harness to direct it. The animal will respond only to its owner.
  • Do not feed or pet the animal.

2- Person has mobility problems (walker or wheelchair in room).

  • Ask to be sure you understand the person’s capabilities. For example:
    • “Can you stand or walk without your walker?”
    • “Can you get down the stairs without my help?”
  • Assume the person knows how you can help. Let her tell you the best way to do it.
  • Assume the person knows how her equipment works. Let her give instructions about how to attach or detach parts, move the chair up or down stairs, etc.

3- Person declares or you think he is visually impaired.

  • Announce your presence.
  • Visually impaired does not mean hard of hearing. Speak in a normal tone of voice.
  • State the nature of the emergency, tell him what needs to happen, and offer assistance.
  • Do not reach out and grab the person to move him. Let him take your arm or rest his hand on your shoulder and then lead him.
  • Warn of stairs, doorways, ramps, etc. before you reach them.
  • To help a person sit down, place his hand on the back of the chair.

 

Communicating in a disaster takes extra thought.

By and large, we understand and are able to automatically put many of these tips into use. In an emergency, though, we may allow our own excitement to make the situation more challenging than it needs to be.

Take a deep breath, think it through.

It will be so much easier dealing with someone who (finally) understands than trying to force them, confused and frightened, into action.

Virginia
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. The best resource I’ve found on the topic of communication with people with disabilities is called Tips for First Responders, from the Center for Development and Disability at the University of New Mexico. You can get copies of the booklet here: http://cdd.unm.edu/dhpd/tips/tipsenglish.html

P.P.S. Resources for dealing with people with disabilities all echo this point: these are PEOPLE FIRST.  Start with the assumption that they have many abilities. For an interesting perspective about the concept of “People First” – written by a person with disabilities — check out this article from the Huffington Post.  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/15/disability-etiquette_n_3600181.html

 

 

 

 

 

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