On February 11 a Federal judge ruled that the City of Los Angeles violated the American with Disabilities Act and various California Codes by failing to meet the needs of residents with disabilities in its emergency management program. This is the first such ruling of its kind and carries tremendous implications for emergency managers and how we plan.
The case centered on the question of equal access. Even if your policies apply to all equally and are enforced consistently, they may still place an undue burden on people with disabilities by virtue of those disabilities. In this case, the court felt that emergency plans were inadequate because they did not make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities in warning, evacuation, and sheltering.
More interesting to me as an emergency manager was that the court did not allow the city to pass the buck by claiming that other agencies and departments had responsibilities for providing reasonable accommodations. Instead, the court noted that there were no indications that those departments and agencies had any supporting plans that would have allowed them to fulfill these responsibilities.
The court also did not accept the argument that individuals have a need to prepare themselves for disaster. While agreeing with the importance of personal preparedness, the judge felt that this was irrelevant to the case as it was about equal access.
I'll be devoting this month's white paper to a more in-depth analysis of the decision. Meanwhile, you can find the ruling at the Disability Rights Legal Center.
My thanks to my colleague and friend, Chris Godley, for bringing this to my attention!
By now I'm sure you've heard that DHS is finally dumping the color coded terror alert system that's been the butt of a lot of jokes over the years. Seems as if the DHS leadership has finally accepted what a lot of us have said from the start: it's a dumb idea.
What we really wanted in the early days after September 11th was a way to make sense of the many messages we were getting from various sources. For example, when we started getting messages about terrorists using crop dusters we wanted to know if we were facing a specific threat or if this is just something that someone at DHS thought we should think about. We wanted something simple attached to each message, along the lines of "no fooling, they're coming for you", "our experts think this is a possible threat", or "I just made this up after talking to the gang at the water cooler." Instead we got the one-size-fits all Homeland Security Advisory System.
What was immediately obvious to us in the field was that the developers of the system had no understanding of risk. The simple fact is that the risk of terrorist attack is not the same for all parts of the country. You can certainly speak of overall risk to the United States but that becomes meaningless when you get to the local level.
This also had a bearing on the actions we were expected to take inr responding to potential threats. Since the warnings we were receiving carried no specific recommendations for action, we were expected to develop generic actions for each color level. However, the first time the levels changed, we suddenly realized how much it cost to keep the entire country on a high level alert for even a few days and the system fell apart. A lot of planning time and money went into a system that did not address specific threats or local risks.
The DHS move to a more nuanced system is a step in the right direction, particularly as it promises to include specific actions to be taken based on the potential threat. Vague warnings with no recommended actions were the downfall of the original system - let's hope DHS has finally learned a basic lesson in emergency management.