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Seven Tips for First Responders Helping Those with Functional Needs

In an emergency, first responders bear the responsibility for the protection and safety of the general public, risking their own lives to help others. The task of first responders becomes more difficult in emergencies that involve people with functional needs, because of possible issues in communication, temperament, and mobility.
Human decency and the ADA, dictate that all people have the same right to care and service, even in an emergency, and first responders need training and practice to improve their ability to navigate complicated emergencies involving people with functional needs. First responders can use these seven tips to provide better service to people with functional needs whenever an emergency occurs.

Always Ask First

No two people with functional needs have the exact same impairment, so what works for one person might not work with another. The person in need of help has the best understanding of his or her own abilities, and they may be able to communicate effectively their specific needs or where they will require assistance.
Communication is important from the beginning, because first responders should never assume someone in a wheelchair can’t walk, or that someone with a crutch will be able to manage stairs on their own. The more work the victim can do on his or her own, the easier it will be to provide emergency assistance.

Diversify Communication Styles

People with functional needs can run the gamut from those who can communicate with spoken language, to those who struggle with any external communication. It is important that first responders develop a variety of communication styles to assist them in situations involving those with functional needs.
Eye contact and hand gestures are especially effective for a number of people that have issues with communication. Even something as simple as a pad of paper and a pen can ease the burden of communication by allowing first responders and those in need of assistance to use written communications.

Never Talk Down To Victims

An all too common tactic first responders and others use when communicating with people suffering from functional needs is to talk down to the victim, treating the person as a child. Adopting such an insulting style of communication is likely to cause a backlash from the victim, souring them on the idea of accepting help from the first responders.
Communicating with the victim as an adult demonstrates respect, and will encourage victims with functional needs to open up and voice their needs in a timely manner.

Label Equipment

In the confusion of an emergency, the essential equipment and special tools people with functional needs rely on can get lost. Without those tools, the victims will be unable to function once they reach a safe environment, and the may suffer negative consequences while they wait for a replacement.
First responders can mitigate some of the confusion by labeling the equipment for each person with functional needs. Color coordinated stickers, a piece of tape with a name on it, or initials written with a marker all work as identifiers to help recover equipment once the victim reaches safety.
There are some tools that people with functional needs should not be without, and the ADA mandates emergency personnel take great pains to keep the victim and equipment together. Of particular note are seating cushions used for wheelchairs and any service animal.

Plan For Rest

During an emergency, first responders want to move as quickly as possible. While this strategy works when everyone is able-bodied and can move on their own, pressuring people with functional needs to accelerate their pace can be counterproductive.
Seniors and those with functional needs will require a chance to rest during an emergency, especially when evacuating a building with stairs. First responders should identify areas where the victims can take a short rest to regain their breath and take pressure off of sore joints and muscles.
Rest is also incredibly important for people whose functional needs are mental or emotional. The situation may overload their coping mechanisms, driving the victim towards an unresponsive state. In those instances, first responders should find a quiet spot where victims can rest, and spend some time reassuring the victim that the situation will return to some semblance of normalcy shortly.

Avoid Lights And Sirens

A common thread for many people with functional needs is a sensitivity to light or sound. The blinking lights of emergency vehicles and the loud sirens can make victims become unresponsive, and incapable of assisting first responders.
When possible, first responders should eliminate any unnecessary lights and sounds. This will help put victims with functional needs at ease, and reduce their stress levels in a very trying time.

Be Patient

The one tip that every first responder needs to follow is to just work patiently with victims who have functional needs. The person may not be able to move physically as fast as an able-bodied person, or may have trouble communicating, but people with functional needs deserve the same dignity and respect afforded everyone else.
In all but the most extreme cases, a few extra seconds of communication with someone that has functional needs will not make the difference between life and death, but a lack of understanding of that person’s needs can have long-term negative consequences.

First responders must proceed with caution when helping people with functional needs, but doing so will improve the quality of service and allow victims to assist first responders.

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Sources
Individuals With Disabilities

https://www.ready.gov/individuals-access-functional-needs

Public Health Emergency

http://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/planning/abc/Pages/afn-guidance.aspx

Online Resources

https://www.disasterassistance.gov/information/disabilities-access-and-functional-needs

FNSS

http://www.fema.gov/pdf/about/odic/fnss_guidance.pdf

Americans with Disabilities Act

http://www.ada.gov/