Public Safety

Training to Help Emergency Evacuations of Disabled

In an emergency, first responders can end up going door to door to evacuate residents. It’s not always as simple as knocking and shouting words of warning. Sometimes the person on the other side has a brain injury, dementia or mental illness. The resident may not identify him- or herself as having a physical, cognitive or emotional disability. So initially all the officer or firefighter sees is that the person may be reluctant to open the door, is frightened, confused or even defiant of the instructions being given.

In an emergency, it is important that residents understand and take directions for their safety. How can a first responder differentiate between someone with a disability and someone who is simply uncooperative? And how do they approach the person to get them to comply?

“In talking with our first responder and disability services partners, the Office of Emergency Services saw a need for specific and additional training to improve discussion, understanding, and effective and compassionate methods for evacuating these members of our community,” said Holly Crawford, director of the County Office of Emergency Services.

In the spring of 2014, the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services began working with experts in a variety of disabilities, first responders and a production company to develop a video training series aimed at providing law enforcement, firefighters and others helpful information to consider when evacuating people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. This undertaking was a regional project supported by Urban Area Security Initiative federal funds secured in early 2014.

The video training series includes eight videos that are approximately eight to 10 minutes in length. Videos in the series address autism, Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss, chronic illness, cognitive disabilities, vision and hearing impairments, mental illness and physical disabilities.

Each video provides important information regarding visual cues and mannerisms that may assist in identifying a disability, dos and don’ts, proper behaviors, and sensitivities to be aware of when interacting with people with the disability being addressed. Each video includes a discussion between a local first responder and expert as well as demonstration scenes featuring actors exhibiting behaviors discussed and first responders having a positive interaction with that individual.

Experts came from the following agencies: Access to Independence, Alzheimer’s Association of San Diego, Autism Society San Diego, County of San Diego Behavioral Health Services, County of San Diego Emergency Medical Services, Deaf Community Services, San Diego Brain Injury Foundation, San Diego Center for the Blind and UC San Diego. The project included first responders from the San Diego Police Department, San Diego Fire-Rescue, Heartland Fire & Rescue and CAL FIRE.

Involving actual local first responders and disability specialists was extremely important to this project, said Crawford. A subject matter expert was on site during recording to ensure actions portrayed by the actors were as accurate as possible and that first responders were demonstrating appropriate responses. San Diego Police Department Chief Shelley Zimmerman and San Diego County Fire Chief Tony Mecham also were involved in taping.

San Diego Police Sgt. Jonathan Lowe, who helped make the training videos for first responders, said most officers are given 10 to 12 hours training in the academy but it is mixed in among all the other training. At the San Diego Police Department, for example, they do get regular training on current situations, but often training is more focused on people with mental illnesses rather than someone with autism or a brain injury for example, he said.   

“I think the videos are very well done. They’re concise and it’s valuable information,” said Lowe. “We come in contact with people in different communities, and if an officer is not properly trained they can misinterpret a behavior as aggression when it’s not meant to be.”

In addition to producing the videos, County Emergency Services also produced a one-page information sheet related to each video topic. The information sheets are designed to highlight important talking points discussed. These information sheets can be provided as a handout to those who view the videos to reinforce learning or can be used as a standalone document to promote learning on the topic.

Packets including DVDs and CDs containing the supplemental handouts were mailed to 29 fire and law enforcement agencies in San Diego County. Since then, Emergency Services has received commitment from fire and law enforcement agencies throughout San Diego County including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, and the National City and Chula Vista police departments, that they will make these videos mandatory training for their personnel.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact