Include Disability Issues in Your Emergency Plan

By Naomi Mitchum, used by permission from The Voice, newsletter at

Include Disability Issues in Your Church Emergency Plan  
One in five persons has a disability, so include these persons and their issues in your church/ campus emergency plans. You don’t have a plan? Think an emergency or disaster will happen to someone else? Think again. Surprise! You are on shelter in place because of toxic air, and the crowd is panicked. Surprise! There’s a fire in the church basement, and two people in wheelchairs are trapped there. Surprise! A tornado is circling overhead and no one knows where to hide. Surprise! A broken water main is flooding a youth Sunday School room, and everyone is standing on chairs.

You need a plan. Now. Start with prayer. The job is less formidable if you break it down into phases:

  • Phase 1: Recruit a committee.
  • Phase 2: Gather information
  • Phase 3: Create a working plan
  • Phase 4: Educate the congregation
Phase 1: Recruit a Committee

Begin with an emergency planning group, including persons with disabilities, to develop a workable long-term design for how to deal with emergencies.

Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas asked for volunteers to serve on such a committee, and in response got volunteers who had a passion for this work, plus several who had been involved in emergency preparations at their companies. The church director of special needs ministry, who works from a power wheelchair, was also on the committee. The committee defined what it would do, intentionally planning to serve persons with functional challenges.

Phase 2: Gather Information

After defining goals, gather general information as well as how disabilities impact evacuation. Pray together. Let each committee member research one or two of the following areas and report back to the committee.

•   The location of utility turn offs, inaccessible emergency exits, fire walls and doors, equipment to transport persons with impaired mobility on stairs, oxygen, AED (Automated External Defibrillator) and who knows how to use it.

•   The names of persons in the congregation with special needs and information about mobility concerns, seizures, meltdowns, and communication skills. This is confidential information that may not always be available and needs to be kept in a locked cabinet.

•   The names of persons who can act as escorts to a person with a disability.

•   The names of church home visitors who are in contact with individuals who are homebound. Will the committee deal with them directly or go through their supervisor? If there are no home visitors, consider recruiting some.

  •    The availability of emergency communication devices to alert and direct people. Will there be a projected announcement in the sanctuary, verbal announcements over a public address system, campus alarm bells, and/ or phone tree calls to leaders in other parts of the building?  If the power is off, who is designated to carry the message? What are the options if cell phone service is disrupted?
Phase 3: Create a Working Plan

After sharing information from Phase 2, it is time to draft a plan and prioritize what will be done immediately and what is to be done later. There will be a written plan of facilities as well as a plan for best ways to interact with persons with disabilities. For future work, the committee may choose members who will focus on indoor emergencies and those who will specialize in evacuation.

Post-emergency immediate care is a very important time for persons with disabilities. Decide who stays with individuals or groups after the emergency and who gets names of injured taken away by ambulance. Assemble a list of qualified church-member counselors to aid after the trauma.

To help with best rescue interaction, committee members at Chapelwood UMC were given a copy of Quick Look for Volunteer Responders, A Guide for Aiding Persons with Disabilities (see Resources) that contains detailed descriptions of ways to help evacuate anyone with a disability. At this stage, the Chapelwood UMC committee focused on Sunday morning worship in the sanctuary which helped them develop a plan for how to sound an alarm, how to evacuate, how to handle a shelter in place or lockdown and how to aid persons with disabilities in each of these scenarios. Because Chapelwood is a three story, sprawling building, the committee purchased two different types of evacuation chairs to get persons with mobility problems up and down stairs. An evacuation plan was devised for each area of the church, taking into consideration the location of fire walls and fire doors  – doors that slam shut when a fire or other alarm sounds. An evacuation plan was posted inside each room of the church.

Note that if there is no money to buy evacuation chairs or slings you can consult your local fire department regarding carrying techniques.

An important last step is establishing the chain of command. One person gives the orders, but a substitute must be designated and available.

After plans are finalized, assemble ushers, administrative personnel and other leaders to try out the emergency plans so the plans may be revised if needed.

Phase 4: Educate the Congregation

Help the congregation get a mental picture of emergency safety and how to accomplish it, and encourage people to become aware of persons with disabilities who need assistance.

Chapelwood UMC accomplished this through the church newsletter and website, announcements from the pulpit, equipment demonstrations, and a run-through using projected slides during Sunday morning worship services. Parents were reassured that their children would be safely evacuated, and told that they cannot go to rescue them.

Chapelwood UMC has discovered the importance of revisiting their emergency plans as well as periodically calling the plans to the attention of congregants. 

Helping each other is a mandate from God. Disaster may be just around the corner, but with careful planning, you can have peace of mind. Get ready!