Frontline Initiative: DSPs Responding to Crisis

Are we Truly Prepared for Emergencies?


Beth Stalvey MPH, PhD, is the Executive Director at the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities in Austin, Texas. Beth can be reached at

Christin Bradley PhD, is the Regional Disability Integration Advisor in FEMA Region 6- Recovery Office, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Christin can be reached at

smiling caucasian woman with blond hair, decorative necklace, white jacket, and floral printed black and white dress

Beth Stalvey

Disaster preparedness is about planning ahead. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends preparing for a disaster during “blue skies.” How quickly individuals will recover from an emergency tomorrow often depends on the planning and preparation done today. Each individual’s abilities and needs are unique, but everyone can take steps to prepare for all kinds of emergencies.

Individuals with disabilities may experience disasters differently than others in the community due to unique physical, cognitive, sensory, communication, and technology support needs. Direct support professionals (DSPs) are a lifeline for people every day. Your role is even more important before, during, and after a disaster.

smiling african american woman with long hair, shiny purple button up blouse, and black pants

Christin Bradley

Individuals with disabilities and their DSPs must consider multiple factors. This includes how they may be evacuated from a damaged home, the need for emergency transportation and medications. It may include where to find accessible shelters that accommodate mobility devices and/or service animals.

If the person is sheltering-in-place, is there power for medical equipment? Is there enough food and clean water? Is there a safe place to go in the home for protection from high winds or floods? Responding to a disaster is further complicated when a DSP cannot personally get to people to provide needed support. For example, during the recent ice storms in Texas, the roads were impassable. No one could travel for almost four days. This year’s winter storm in Texas is an important reminder to have a plan. Disasters can strike at any time and without warning. As we saw during that winter storm, people were left without power for days. Many weren’t prepared. Impacts to communications, transportation, and critical services across the state meant people in need of assistance experienced longer wait times. To increase the effectiveness of disaster preparedness for people with disabilities, families, and DSPs, federal, state, local, and tribal governments need to work together to identify and coordinate effective planning strategies before, during, and after emergencies. 

To increase the effectiveness of disaster preparedness for people with disabilities, families, and DSPs, federal, state, local, and tribal governments need to work to gether to identify and coordinate effective planning strategies before, during, and after emergencies.

Individual and family readiness

So what can DSPs do to help individuals with disabilities and their families prepare for the unexpected and be safe when they are not there? First, have an action plan and personal items ready in a Go Bag. These items may include things like: 

  • Extra food and water if it becomes necessary to shelter-in-place.
  • 7–14-day supply of medications (check insurance and refill medications a week early to keep a surplus on hand).
  • Cell phone chargers and batteries.
  • Batteries for hearing aids and communication devices.
  • Masks and sanitizer if evacuated to a shelter or expecting first responders in the home.
  • Pet food and supplies for a service animal.

Other planning tips include:

  • Creating a communication card that describes the best way to communicate with the person you support and how they communicate best.
  • Making a transportation backup plan.
  • Labeling medical equipment (including cushions on wheelchairs).
  • Making a list of phone numbers for health care providers, case managers, and insurance companies.

You may also encourage people you support and families to take pictures of identification cards (e.g., driver’s license) that are kept on a phone or computer. You may also encourage them to take photos of the inside and outside of their homes in case damage reports need to be filed. Discuss with the people who you support how they will receive emergency notifications from the community or state. Help set up alerts on a mobile phone, and  identify a list of trustworthy television channels or radio stations.

Whole community planning and support

We recognize that DSPs and their agencies are an important link between people you support and the community. You can take a lead, along with your supervisor, to develop a response plan that can communicate important information to emergency responders. Your community team includes local first responders, and city and county management professionals who should be aware of the unique needs of the person and family you support. The community team should also include health care providers and local non-profit organizations. The community team may be available to provide temporary support, such as food or access to medications, if you are unable to get them to the person. Together you can work to build a support network. 

As you plan, ask these questions:

  • Are there specific considerations for evacuation, such as medical equipment or transportation needs that emergency personnel should know about?
  • Does your state have a registry for special needs that you can fill out in preparation?
  • Does your community have a designated evacuation plan for disasters such as hurricanes? Find out the location of the evacuation shelter in your area, and whether it is accessible. In Texas, for example, some coastal cities are evacuated to cities three hours inland to avoid the path of a storm.
  • What is your agency plan to connect with the people you support if they are evacuated and relocated? Who provides support if they are evacuated? Who will communicate with family or guardians if this occurs? 

 Community groups may also be on call to help people and families obtain assistance from agencies such as FEMA. FEMA can assist after a disaster with housing, food, and support for damage repairs. Furthermore, you should encourage the people you support  to have conversations with neighbors, friends, and extended family to share their plan, discuss needs, and agree on the steps that can keep the person safe.

Including DSPs in the development and planning process of state and local emergency plans is  best practice to ensure the needs of people with disabilities are being incorporated in disaster plans. You can become educated on potential disasters and understand appropriate planning efforts. You can learn more by attending community presentations, participating in disaster exercises, and coordinating with local organizations who serve the disability community. This can help ensure you have knowledge and tools to effectively provide support during emergencies. In my experience, having the appropriate people at the planning table from the beginning yields the best results. Including DSPs in all levels of disaster planning can help mitigate risks from disasters.

So when you arrive for work tomorrow, look up—is the sky blue? If so, it is the right time to ask whether the person you support is ready. It is only when we anticipate a disaster under blue skies—when times are calm—that we can plan ahead and truly be prepared. 


There are many state and national resources that offer tips and strategies for emergency planning and response. The following videos were developed by the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities in partnership with Texas AgriLife Extension at Texas A&M University and the Coastal Bend Independent Living Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The Science Behind Emergency Preparedness: How to Plan and Prepare for Emergency Situations, Including Man-Made and Natural Disasters

Formulating an Individualized Family Plan: Community Engagement and Community Inclusion

Taking Action: Building a Go Bag and Establishing an Emergency Checklist