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Emergency Communication and Federal Employees

Paul Singleton

Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program

 

 

Good afternoon, everyone. 

 

I have been with the Department of Defense computer and electronic accommodations program for approximately 15 years, since before the days of the Internet.  I think that emergency communication with federal employees is a significant issue that we need to address, and I am happy to address it here at this conference with all of you today.

 

Currently 4,745 deaf and hard-of-hearing employees work for the Federal Government.  That's a large number of employees which present as challenge to a program like ours.  The CAP program provides free technical assistance and equipment to all federal employees with disabilities across the country, as well as around the world.  We provide the equipment to meet their needs, and that's quite a challenge. 

      

Neither the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 nor the Americans with Disabilities Act specifically require emergency preparedness plans.  However, they do require equal access for people with disabilities to the benefit and privileges of employment.  That means that, if you have an emergency plan in place, it has to be accessible for employees with disabilities.  That plan must also include input and participation from employees with disabilities.  Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires equal access to federal websites and information resources.  Blind visitors need audio access.  Deaf visitors need text access for emergency information posted on government web pages.  Computers and office equipment used for alerting and communication must be accessible.  The critical question related to emergency communication for the Federal Government is that emergency preparedness information is communicated with the same frequency and level of detail to all employees.  Is the information on emergency preparedness on the agency website or Internet easy to locate and available?  And is it in a text version?  We added that text version to make it available for specific screen reader technologies to be able to access this version. 

 

       Accessibility of agencies’ intranets:  Where there is highly classified security information, intranets within the federal agencies are used.  So information should also be accessible there. 

 

       Emergency preparedness training sessions and meetings must be in accessible locations.  Do we offer text in Braille?  Are copies of the plan placed in prominent locations throughout the building, exit signs for example.

 

       Emergency-evacuation and general Shelter in Place information.  You need to know where to go.  You need to know where the shelter is.  Is it in the basement or in another specific place?  So that information is distributed to those who have frequent visitor identification badges.  We often have contractors or visitors that enter federal buildings, and that information needs to be made available to them as well. 

 

       Those are the critical questions.  There are some challenges for deaf employees because there are agencies that have a large number of deaf employees that work in one building, maybe on one floor.  Each place has to have what we call an OEP, that's an occupant emergency plan.  Each agency needs to provide a safe workplace for all employees, including those with disabilities. 

 

       It is incumbent upon those managers who oversee employees with disabilities to be aware of specific emergency preparedness guidance outlined.  So the manager needs to be aware of the plan and be able to communicate that plan. 

 

       The manager needs to be proactive in discussing these topics with all of the employees.  My manager did that to me to talk about where we get out, how do we get out, where do we meet once we get out of the building?  We have face masks in our office.  We were trained on how to use them and how to locate them.  And I was provided that by my manager.  At the same time, people with disabilities must take responsibility for engaging in emergency preparedness.  So this is important information that everyone needs to know, and employees with disabilities are also responsible for getting this information. 

 

       The Office of Personnel Management recommends -- and they've done this for many years -- a buddy system.  In my department we have a floor monitor, and so I have a buddy on my floor that talks with me about what to do in case of an emergency.  And we have an agreement about what to do.  The buddy system is quite common.  And we see that throughout the Federal Government. 

 

       Emergency communication using emergency notification strategies:  It's recommended that you use more than one communication system.  The buddy system is fine, but that's not the be-all, end-all.  You need effective ways of communicating.  Some of these other ways could be two-way radios, personal messages from the emergency command center, and our build something on the 8th floor, for all three buildings for Department of Defense. 

 

       Other approaches:  Telephone trees, personal contacts, system manager messages ( messages that you would get on your computer system at work) fire alarms, strobe lights, pagers, cell phones, and handheld devices can be used.  Those are also a way to have communication access in an emergency situation.  Public address systems, PAS, should be in both audio versions and text. 

 

       Do these methods account for those who may be aware from their desks or the office?  I've had a personal experience approximately one year ago.  There was an anthrax scare in Falls Church, Virginia.  My building is located there.  I was there in the morning up until about noon.  I left in the afternoon for another meeting outside of the premises, and my building was shut down at 12:30.  Eight hundred employees had to stay there for decontamination. 

 

       The next morning I read in "The Washington Post" that my building had been shut down.  And I thought, oh, well, am I okay?  Do I have something on my clothes that I now have hung in my closet with all of my other clothes and now my house is contaminated?  So I sent an e-mail to my supervisor and the command center.  The response was contact your supervisor.  Well, my supervisor was in Los Angeles, California, at the time, and so it was, you know, obviously not a good situation.

 

       And then later I found out that it was a scare it was not a true threat.  But I filed a complaint within my internal system, and the response was incredible. 

 

       All of the systems managers in the command center were involved in making a better plan, a better system.  So that's an example of what could happen. 

       As a result of that, we now have what we call personal message.  It's ReachPlus 4.0.  The rating system for alerts is taken from Homeland Security in terms of the color coded levels, severe (red), high (orange), elevated (yellow), guarded (blue), and low (green).  These are ranges, and different people will get these messages depending on who you are.  For example, if a parking lot is closed down for a specific reason, you can alert the people that are affected by that specific area.  You can also control what messages are sent to your employees explaining a specific situation at hand -- Be it the parking lot, or this building is shut down so you need stay away because of contamination.  So the system is flexible.

 

       Best of all is the acknowledgment message that requires me, if I read the message, to respond saying that I saw this message and that I then left the building.  Thus the command center will know that I received the message.  And they'll know that I am okay.  If I do not respond, they'll be looking for me.  So that's good.

 

       Some common alerting systems used by the Federal Government for deaf and hard-of-hearing employees, that are in place now, are networked emergency message notification systems such as the one I just described; agencies use specialized pager systems, wireless transmitters, and wrist belt buzzers.  This picture on the slide is a pager, and it has a variety of lights on it that can alert you to different situations.  They are electronic signals and LCD screens that you see in different places throughout the building that will alert you to what is happening, such as an elevator being closed or a building being shut down.

 

       There are visual fire alarms with strobe lights, which are required.  I've seen a few that did not have strobe lights that have now been replaced.  And they're also included in all of the restrooms in the buildings. 

 

       E-mail alerts to pagers are used as well.  The e-mail that I showed you earlier also goes to our pagers.  If my building was shut down I would be notified that via my two-way pager.

 

       I have worked for the CAP program, as I have explained, for 15 years providing assistive technology for all people with disabilities within the Federal Government.  There are 29,000 employees with disabilities that work for the Federal Government.  4,750 of which are deaf and hard-of-hearing.  So we provide TTYs, TTY modems, amplification devices, telephones, captioning on in-house videotapes, assistive listening devices, video communication devices, video relay, and all of these help with the emergencies and communication obviously. 

 

       For eight years we've provided -- over the last eight years we've provided 2,261 TTYs, alerting system signalling devices, amplified phones, and  350 video communication devices.  So it provides better computer accessibility and telecommunications for deaf employees. 

 

       There are 64 federal agencies that the CAP program is available for, and we provide the equipment.  Now, this doesn't include building alerting systems, because there are many federal buildings throughout the United States, and it's not possible for me to physically visit all of these buildings and see what the needs are.  The responsibility still lies within the federal agency occupying the federal building.  And you need to follow the plan, the emergency plan, for that building and find an individual solution. 

 

       Last week we received a new video phone product that's now out, and I think that it will be a significant piece of equipment that we'll have to distribute.  This is actually a portable device.  So if you are in a hotel and you have an emergency, you can plug this into the Internet and make a video phone call immediately.  During times of emergency, time is of the essence.  I show this picture with this specifically because it has a 5" LCD screen, and a video cam included in this piece of telephone equipment.  So as we can see technology is always evolving, and it seems like we're always looking at what new equipment is out there.  This just came out last week as an example.  And so my message is, please, just keep up with technology.  I've seen some wonderful presenters today that are all communicating with each other for emergency access for all officials including federal employees, which is the group of individuals that I work with.

 

       Most of the information that I've provided is available in this book, “Preparedness in the Workplace for Everyone”.  This was written by the Department of Labor for federal employees to help them prepare for emergency evacuations.  This is available at the table in the back of the room.  This is the first time that I've actually seen it, so it is available here at the conference to help you prepare your workplace for individuals with disabilities.

 

       There are four phases of emergency preparedness for federal employees.  First is development of a plan, second is implementation – putting it together and putting it in place, third is practicing the plan, and fourth is follow-through – getting the opinions and ideas of those who participated in the plan, following up with any problems that occurred, and then fixing them.

 

We have the Interagency Coordinating Council on Emergency Preparedness and Individuals with Disabilities.  This council represents all federal agencies and outside organizations as well, who have developed this booklet to help all of you for your workplace preparedness. 

 

       This is my contact information and our web address.  My e-mail address is cap@tma.osd.mil.  My personal e-mail is Paul.Singleton@tma.ods.mil.  You can contact me on video phone, but we do have firewall issues.  I can call out, but I cannot get a call in.  And then our website is WWW.tricare.OSD.MIL/CAP.  Thank you. 

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