Ask a Firefighter: Disabilities registry can help direct first responders

Ask a Firefighter: Disabilities registry can help direct first responders

What can residents do to protect themselves and their family members with disabilities during an emergency?

More than 43 million Americans have a disability — whether physical, medical, sensory, or cognitive. At any moment we could become part of this group; in fact, researchers have found that 70 percent of all Americans will, at some time in their lives, have a temporary or permanent disability. For these millions among us, emergencies can present a real challenge. In our region, recent nor’easters have underlined the problem, and local residents have asked firefighters how they can protect family members with disabilities when disaster strikes.

Disabilities manifest themselves in varying degrees, and the functional implications of these differences are important for emergency evacuation. One person may have multiple disabilities, while another may have a disability whose symptoms fluctuate. Everyone needs to have a plan to be able to evacuate to a safe location, regardless of physical condition, or ability to communicate or adjust to different situations. 

To be prepared, every household should assemble a home emergency kit with a collection of basic items to stay safe and be more comfortable during and after an emergency. Include in your kit information about any medical or special needs your family member has. It is helpful to have both an electronic and written copy of their medical history, daily care plan, important contacts, and other key information about any disabilities.

In an emergency, it is important to talk to each of your family members about what is happening. Be honest and explain the situation. Set an example with your own actions by maintaining the appearance of calm, even when you are distressed. This will help your family cope with any emergency. Information can change quickly: Watch and listen to the news so you can make the best, most informed decisions for you and your family.

Your local firefighters recommend that you enroll in the Rhode Island Special Needs Emergency Registry. The state Department of Health and the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency collaborate with E-911 to notify first responders when they are responding to a household that may have someone enrolled in the registry, known as RISNER.

This program assists first responders prepare for and respond to your needs during a hurricane, storm, or other emergency, because it allows you to list specific information about disabilities. For example, if someone in your home uses oxygen, needs a wheelchair, or has a cognitive disability, firefighters, police, and EMTs will already have that information when they arrive to help.

If you are instructed to evacuate, do so immediately. Contact family or friends who you know, from your plan, will accommodate you and your family’s specific needs, and will be most helpful during this stressful situation. Emergency public shelters will also be available, and can provide meals and a safe place to stay. However, they do not provide personal health care. If you require the care of a personal attendant and choose to go to a shelter, bring the attendant with you. 

Local emergency personnel are always willing to spend time with families to talk about emergencies with individuals with disabilities. They also host special events intended to meet those needs. For instance, the Charlestown Fire District is hosting a Touch a Fire Truck for Autism Awareness at the Cross’ Mills Fire Department on May 5. The purpose of this event is to show autistic residents what to expect from first responders during an emergency situation. This free event will be limited to autistic residents and caregivers. Lt.  Jim Dzwil of the Cross’ Mills Fire Department can provide information about this event. You can reach him at 401-481-2490.

For more information about preparing individuals with disabilities for emergencies, please visit   You can also learn more about emergency preparedness and enroll in the RI Special Needs Emergency Registry at

This column was written by Jane Perkins, fire safety specialist for the Rhode Island Southern Firefighters League and captain of the Watch Hill Fire Department. If you would like to see a question answered in this column, please e-mail her at 




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