A first responder’s job is one of the most formidable in the world. It demands that these individuals act quickly and responsibly. This can be a difficult task when it comes to helping individuals who have wide-ranging personalities and responses to fear and danger. For some individuals with disabilities, this may pose a unique challenge to first responders.
Thankfully, David Whalen and his organization have come up with excellent programs for disability awareness training tailored specifically for first responders. David provides a little insight into what he is doing and why it is so important to firefighters, EMTs, 911 telecommunicators, and law enforcement:
If you wanted a first responder to know one thing in regards to individuals with disabilities, what would it be?
This is a challenging question to answer because the fact is that every disability is unique. But beyond that, each individual disability can present so differently within different individuals. A great example of this is the fact that we refer to autism as being on a spectrum. So lumping all of the disabilities, or even all of the individuals with a single disability together is a misconception.
But I would say the most important thing to remember, for a first responder, is that what they do not know is what will hurt them the most. Not only do they need to have an understanding of all the various disabilities, but they also need to know the various ways there are to respond and interact—i.e. if the first tactic for interacting with a person with a specific disability does not work, they need to have other options in their back pocket.
This is especially essential for the 50% of disabilities that are not visible or obvious upon first glance. So while first responders may not be able to immediately recognize that something is different, they need to always be aware that this possibility exists so that they do not respond inappropriately (and this is even more vital for firefighters who are most often put in life and death situations).
According to the NFPA, or the National Fire Protection Association, the three most vulnerable populations in fires are seniors—many of whom have a disability, individuals who have sensory disabilities—such as deafness or blindness, and individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities. If firefighters are not trained in disabilities, proper response for the various disabilities, and outreach strategies for developing safety habits and fire prevention in the community, they are putting community members at risk.
Can you provide an example of a call that didn’t go as well as it should have because of a lack of awareness of disabilities?
This is difficult to narrow down to one example because it is just so common that something can go wrong, especially with law enforcement due to the nature of the interaction. With EMTs and firefighters, while there is a significant need to recognize disabilities, generally that recognition comes prior to the interaction.
There are a number of unfortunate cases in recent years involving a lack of recognition. There was a case with a fire in a group home in New York where four people perished. There have also been several instances where EMTs failed to recognize autism and other intellectual disabilities, such as when one gentleman with autism jumped from the back of an ambulance and died.
In a case of failure to recognize, the outcome can vary from lack of confidence in the first responder as they inappropriately interact to death. In between are lawsuits, jobs lost, and sleepless nights for the first responder who failed just because they were never aware.
This is exactly why the training is so essential. It is more than just a training. It is teaching preventative habits and how to provide outreach in the community before tragedies happen. This includes encouraging first responders to go to disability-serving schools and programs for those with disabilities in their uniform so that those individuals can be exposed to first responders and what they do. Training, education, providing an understanding of disabilities, and providing the tools necessary to successfully connect with communities is what we are offering.
All of this helps to dissipate the misconception that the disability community already knows everything that is available for their needs—oftentimes they do not. First responders are responsible for providing this type of information, whether it be alerting devices, fire safety planning, the fire department registry, and so much more. First responders must be the ones to take charge of this outreach.
With all the trainings first responders are expected to participate in, why should a chief ask his members to take part in disability awareness training?
According to the NFPA, or the National Fire Protection Association, the three most vulnerable populations in fires are seniors—many of whom have a disability, individuals who have sensory disabilities—such as deafness or blindness, and individuals with physical or intellectual disabilities. If firefighters are not trained in disabilities, proper response for the various disabilities, and outreach strategies for developing safety habits and fire prevention in the community, they are putting community members at risk. In other words, communities with untrained firefighters are in more danger.
Simply put, first responder disability training is just as important as any other training. And once EMTs, firefighters, emergency telecommunications professionals, and law enforcement professionals go through the training, they have a much fuller understanding of why it is so essential in successfully serving a community.
Are there any tools available to help first responders translate when communication is difficult?
Absolutely! First, it is important to understand the three barriers that can exist when working with an individual with a disability: physical, attitudinal, and communication. When it comes to communication, our training teaches first responders all the American Sign Language signs they need when communicating. We also teach them how to communicate with nonverbal individuals with PECS boards, or picture exchange communication systems, and with alternative and augmentative communication devices. And then there is also training for effectively communicating and outreaching through web sites.
The intent of the training is to provide tools and resources that they can walk away with. In the end, it is much more than just training.
Can you tell us about your program?
We are currently based at Niagara University and have been established for seven years. We are also recognized in New York State through the Fireman’s Association, the State of New York, the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, and the New York State Fire Chief’s Association. And we are now in the State of Missouri, recognized there by the Missouri Firefighters, where we just debuted our program at the Kansas City Fire Department. In Kansas City, we are ensuring that every single firefighter gets full training. Outside of Missouri and New York, we are open to all 50 states and have so far done training in about 10.
And we also have a Train the Trainer program for firefighters—we want them to own the product so that they can train individuals whenever they need. In the program, we rely heavily on videos to do the teaching. This allows the program to be duplicated much more easily, even if the instructor is not well versed in all of the disabilities.
Besides these tools, we also provide plenty of walk-away handouts that are specific to the various disabilities, allowing individuals to slowly gain a more advanced understanding of each one. And finally, we have a fully operational website that is packed with resources available for anyone to use and which now provides an online training for EMS professionals.
Learn more about David’s program
David’s disability awareness training has provided the necessary tools to countless first responders. To find out how you can get involved and learn more, please visit Frdat.niagara.edu or call 716-286-7355.