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March 25, 2022

Harnessing Experience and Knowledge to Improve Disaster Planning and Implementation

More than ever, the emerging focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion is transforming the emergency management profession. Andrew Phelps, the Director of Oregon’s Office of Emergency Management, points out that when looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion, accessibility is often an

overlooked aspect of those three. Oregon, in recognizing this, is acting by moving forward with their IDEA program, highlighting Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility.


As a step towards including everyone in their community, the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, Oregon Health Authority, and the Oregon Department of Human Services created a partnership in 2019 and analyzed strategies on including accessibility in the state’s plans and responses to a wide variety of disasters. From that, in 2020 the Disability Emergency Management Advisory Council (DEMAC) was formed under the three state agencies. DEMAC is a state-wide cross-disability council that believes equity in emergency management is possible and that people have a right to be included and treated with dignity and respect.


DEMAC was created to apply the experiences and knowledge of people with disabilities, as subject matter experts, to guide statewide emergency management processes in the development and implementation of inclusive practices through all planning, response, and recovery activities.


The COVID pandemic uprooted many emergency management plans across the country. Due to the pandemic and the response to other events, the Council lost some momentum, but intends to regain its footing and focus. A major reason for this loss of momentum was due to the pandemic-forced staffing changes and disrupting the group tackling the DEMAC mission by placing them in pandemic leadership positions. While slowing progress, this opened the opportunity to gain a new set of eyes on the best path forward to increase accessibility in policy and programs and identify remaining gaps. The early summits and roundtables by leaders in the field in 2019 laid a foundation of partnership and developed lines of communication.  These proved invaluable in working toward a more equitable response, including the disability community, to the pandemic. The DEMAC was involved in providing feedback and expertise to inform the state’s response, including the development of the COVID-19 Guidance for People with Disabilities, Older Adults, and People with Underlying Health Conditions. The DEMAC played a key role in elevating the importance of interpreters at press briefings in the early on in the pandemic and in developing guidance on incorporating the needs of people with disabilities in drive-through testing sites.


The Council is primarily supported through staff from the three state agencies that created the initial structure and has used external facilitators to help steer the Council’s work. The Council budget comes from equal contributions of state general fund from each of the three agencies. On top of that funding, Oregon contributes a portion of its Emergency Performance Grant Program (EMPG) funding towards the Councils efforts.


The development of this type of council can come with uncertainty. State level planning presents unique challenges and translating that work to the local level can be equally as daunting.  Broad representation must be authentically included in the conversation and have a clear understanding of how their voice will influence planning processes. So far, one of the most significant challenges for DEMAC has been coordinating outreach campaigns and seeking input from interested stakeholders.


With accessibility as a priority for an evolving threat and hazard landscape, Oregon will continue working to remove barriers to entry and access of programs, resources, and services, and ensure conversations with communities and organizations that have been underrepresented in our emergency planning efforts evolve across the continuum of emergency management responsibilities.  None of these processes are perfect, but engagement and inclusion prove successful in their own right to ensure the success of the IDEA effort.


Phelps expressed the excitement and optimism around DEMAC and its potential to drive change by saying, “Disasters impact each of us differently. We need to ensure our plans and programs account for the diversity within our communities and the only way to do that is through open, collaborative, and inclusive planning and review process to truly meet the needs of those we serve.”

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.

- Stephen R. Covey

If you would like more information or have a state practice you’d like to highlight as part of this ongoing series, please contact Jamie Logan

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