Waldo Canyon Fire Forum Report Released

The Independence Center and The Rocky Mountain ADA Center Release Waldo Canyon Fire Forum Report

Colorado Springs, Colo., Nov. 2, 2012 – The Independence Center (The IC) and the Rocky Mountain ADA Center (ADA Center) released their After Action Report, a report of key findings from the Waldo Canyon public forum co-hosted by the organizations on Aug. 30, 2012.

Those who attended the forum included officials from the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management Division, the Manitou Springs Police Department and the Red Cross, and people with disabilities and their families who were affected by the fire. The goal of the forum was to collect information from people with disabilities and their families to help emergency response teams improve their existing processes and update their current emergency plans to better address the needs of people with disabilities.

“We are very pleased with this report,” said Patricia Yeager, CEO of The Independence Center. “It is a valuable tool that the city and county can use to make their emergency plans more comprehensive. It is information we didn’t have before, first-hand testimony on what worked and didn’t for people in our community with various disabilities.”

The After Action Report summarizes the views shared by the public at the forum and includes suggestions for emergency planners around the issues of communication, transportation and shelter access. The report also highlights the need for individuals and their families to create an emergency plan for themselves.

“One of the primary messages shared by people at the forum is that few individuals are personally prepared for disaster,” said Jana Burke, project director of the ADA Center. “The Waldo Canyon event reminds all of us, with and without disabilities, that we need to be prepared for emergencies before they occur. People with disabilities need to self-advocate, make sure they are prepared and have their personal emergency plan and communication plans put together.”

The IC and the ADA Center plan to utilize this informative report in various capacities, including:

  • Working with local Deaf and Hard of Hearing advocates to share the report with local TV stations so they can take these findings into consideration when determining how to best make their broadcasts accessible to persons with disabilities during an emergency.
  • Working with the Red Cross to identify shelter locations that are accessible and welcoming to all.
  • Working with first responders to address the needs of people with a wide variety of disabilities when it comes to emergency response and evacuation procedures.

“We are not here to blame anyone,” Yeager points out.  “We simply want to work with city and county planners to develop more inclusive plans so that we can ensure the needs of all of our community members are met in future disasters.”

The IC and ADA Center have already begun working with local emergency operations personnel to integrate these findings in city and county emergency operations plans. The ADA Center is working with El Paso County review their emergency plan for ADA compliance. After the review is completed, the County has indicated they will work with members of the disability community to address any accessibility barriers identified in the plan.

Waiting to be Evacuated

Geraldine is a power wheelchair user. She lives in Manitou and watched the Waldo Canyon fire on the TV. She trusted and relied on the organizations that exist within Manitou (the police, fire department, etc.) to evacuate her when the time came. Still, it was scary to watch the fire getting so close and not knowing what was going to happen. She touched base regularly with family and neighbors to let them know she was okay. Friends offered to evacuate her, but none of them could move a power wheelchair, so, like Geraldine, all they could do was wait. She charged up her wheelchair, got what she could packed into her wheelchair. When Manitou was placed under mandatory evacuation she was ready with her front door unlocked, she stayed awake and waited for emergency response crews to get to her. Help arrived shortly after midnight. But they were not prepared to move her in her chair. Geraldine knew she couldn’t function without it and everything she needed was already packed on it. A member of the fire department stayed with her until arrangements were made through Amblicab. The night of the evacuation Geraldine was scared to go to sleep. With the fire so close she was glued to TV. She knew she wouldn’t be left behind because police and fire crews would go door to door and neighbors knew she was there. “Don’t fall asleep, be ready!” She told herself. She trusted there would be some kind of plan and that once the mandatory evacuation when into effect there would be a sweep of the streets. Geraldine ended up at the Cheyenne Mountain Shelter around 1 AM.  After registering, she was exhausted. The Red Cross did not have what she needed given her disability. She was given a regular cot, even though there were accessible cots. She was told they would bring one to her, but that never happened. The shelter also didn’t have any showers that would accommodate Geraldine. There were no shower chairs for her to use either. Not wanting to be a burden, Geraldine told them not to worry about it. She used the sinks to clean up, hoping she wouldn’t be evacuated too much longer. The shelter wasn’t as full as it could have been. Many people chose to stay with friends or at a hotel. Geraldine was stuck there because none of her friends could transport her in her power chair, and the bus system was down. Geraldine also lives on a fixed income, she lives month to month, so the shelter was the only place she had to go. She was at Cheyenne Mountain for four days. After Manitou residents were let back in, there were no arrangements made for her to get home. Red Cross volunteers asked her how much money she had – implying she had to pay to get back. Then the county stepped in! They were offering free rides to the Sky Sox game. When they realized what was going on, they called Geraldine an accessible cab and picked up the tab for her ride home. “Every time you run through (things like this) you see the small things that could be fixed,” Geraldine said. “(Things) didn’t run real smooth but it (got) taken care of.” Geraldine identified three main issues with her evacuation:
  1. She never received reverse 9-1-1. Emergency people came to her house but never got the message she was in a power chair.
  2. She never knew who to call for information (outside of what was being said on TV). She didn’t know what to do in the situation
  3. Should she have gone out with pre-evacuation orders because of her electric wheelchair? And if she had wanted to leave then, who should she have called for that assistance?
 “This was a dress rehearsal, and made me think of what I needed to have ready, which includes important papers, medications, etc. (It) really helped me realized the things I do need and was fortunately to realize what I really need.” This is the second in a series of stories highlighting the experience of people with disabilities in the Waldo Canyon Fire. The third installment will be published next week.