Frontline Initiative Coping with Disaster

How DSPs Can Prepare for Disaster


Michelle Trotter is research assistant at Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota.

Throughout this edition of Frontline Initiative we have heard stories of how Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) and people with disabilities have worked together to cope in the case of terrorist attacks, ice storms and winter storms. DSPs and the people they support should prepare for all types of disasters including earthquakes, floods, droughts and tornados. The American Red Cross urges everyone to prepare for disasters and offers a framework that DSPs can follow. Use the guidelines below to facilitate discussions to plan for the types of disasters that could potentially occur in your area.

  • Talk with the people you support about disasters that can occur in your area and the need for preparing. Calmly discuss the dangers of the potential disaster and decide on individual responsibilities. If verbal communication presents a problem then use an alternative way to discuss this like pictures, story books or videos.
  • Plan where to meet after a disaster and how each of the individuals you support will be transported or rescued depending on their mobility (escape route). Arrange for a contact person who everyone can call and update on their whereabouts.
  • Learn about your community’s emergency warning signals including what they mean and what you should do when you hear them. Practice using the fire extinguisher and identify the safe spots in the building.
  • Check supplies making sure you have adequate food, water and medical supplies in case of a disaster. It is a good idea to have three to five day supply of canned goods available incase of an emergency. Check the batteries in smoke alarms in all rooms at least twice a year.
  • Tell all your co-workers and the people you support where the emergency contact information is kept and make copies for everyone. Post emergency contact numbers by the phones.
  • Practice fire and earthquake drills, and evacuation routes. Update emergency contact information and disaster supplies. Review and practice your disaster plans regularly.

Types of Disasters


 Do your part to prevent drought by conserving water. If a drought condition occurs in your community water use may be restricted at certain times or for certain uses (i.e. watering your lawn). Discuss the potential restrictions with the people you support and work together to adjust your daily lives to reflect the changes. For more information specific to your community, contact you local water authority. 


Develop a plan to prepare for potential earthquakes by identifying a safe place within every room  under a sturdy object where you and the people you support would be safe from falling objects. If an earthquake occurs DROP, COVER, AND HOLD ON to protect yourself. Avoid going outside and being near windows until the shaking stops. After the shaking stops check yourself and those you support for injuries. Check for possible gas leaks as a result of the earthquake. Fires

Plan and practice your escape routes in case of fire including evacuation plans for those in wheelchairs. Plan to meet at a neighbor’s house and call the fire department from there. If there is fire or smoke in your escape path take an alternate route, if this is the only option stay low and check all doors for heat before opening them. If you are trapped keep doors closed and wave a bright colored cloth like a bed sheet or curtain, out of a nearby window. 


Learn about your community’s risk for floods. If it has been raining for several hours or days know that the occurrence of the flood is possible. Tune into local radio or television stations to learn about potential flood warnings. If you need to evacuate do so quickly and move to higher ground enacting the evacuation plan you have developed.

Heat Waves

A heat wave is defined by the American Red Cross as a prolonged period of excessive heat and humidity. The National Weather Service steps up its procedures to alert the public during these periods of excessive heat and humidity. DSPs and the people they support should avoid excessive activity, stay hydrated and spend time in air conditioned areas when available. Monitor for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.


Identify the potential for terrorist attacks in your area. In the event of a terrorist attack stay calm and follow the instructions of local emergency officials. Develop an emergency communications plan for everyone to follow and identify a place to meet in case the area that you work in is affected. Compile a disaster supply kit that includes food and water. Have kits for each person you support that include items that are essential for each individual like medicines.


If you suspect a storm is approaching listen to the radio for updates on the weather conditions. Avoid running water, unplug appliances and do not use your phone. Draw the blinds to protect glass breakage from entering the room. Locate a safe room away from windows. If you are outdoors find shelter immediately.


Decide where you and the people you support will go in the case of a tornado. Choose a basement or hallways and internal rooms if a basement is not available. Have food, water, a battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries handy to take to your protected location. Listen to the radio to get information about tornado warnings and watches. 

Winter Storms

Listen to the radio for winter storm watches and warnings. Have warm clothes including hats and mittens for yourself and each person you support. Avoid going outdoors and driving. Make sure you have adequate supplies of food, water and medicine in case you are unable to go out. As with a tornado, have a battery-powered radio, flashlight, and extra batteries on hand. For more information about how to prepare disasters visit the Disaster Safety section of the American Red Cross.