Emergency Preparedness for Families with Special Needs Children
This article has been fact checked by a Board Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. Sources of information for the article are listed at the bottom.
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Being prepared for emergencies and natural disasters is important for all families, but when you have a child with special needs, such as a child with cerebral palsy, being ready takes on a whole new level of importance. No matter where you live, natural disaster, such as an earthquake, a tornado, or flooding, could occur at any time. There is no such thing as preventing a disaster, but it is possible to prevent the worst outcomes by being prepared. Spend the time now making sure your entire family will be prepared with everything you need to get through a disaster safely.
Cerebral Palsy and Special Needs
A family with a child that has cerebral palsy is a family that has a child with needs that go beyond those of other children. Your child is unique and has his or her individual needs. If you have never thought about how those concerns will impact you during an emergency, now is the time.
Special needs that could pose a risk during an emergency include mobility issues, a need for medications or special medical devices, emotional issues that cause behavioral outbursts, stress, or panic, difficulty breathing or eating, inability to communicate, and many others.
Examples of Emergencies
Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, landslides, and others, are all natural disasters that, depending on location, can occur at any time and sometimes without much warning. Other types of emergencies for which a family should be prepared include house fires, evictions, or other occurrences that leave the family without a home for a period of time. You may even consider preparing for emergencies such as an outbreak of an infectious disease or even a terrorist attack.
Consequences of Not Being Prepared
It’s not pleasant to think about, but it is crucial to consider what may happen if your family is not prepared for an emergency. This can be an important motivating factor for making a plan and making preparations. Emergencies do not wait until you are ready.
If you have a child with special needs because of cerebral palsy and a disaster strikes, you may find you cannot easily leave because of your child’s mobility issues. You may not be able to access your child’s medications. If your child needs electronic devices or aids and the power goes out, you will not be able to use or charge them. If something happens to the adult caring for the child, that child may be helpless.
Get Informed before an Emergency
There are four basic steps to being prepared for an emergency and for keeping your child safe:
- Be informed
- Establish a plan
- Make an emergency preparedness kit
- Update that plan and kit over time to adjust for changes in needs
The first step is important because you need to know what to expect during an emergency. Find out what emergency signals are given in your neighborhood or city, what resources are made available during emergencies, and locations in the community where people can go during a disaster.
Develop a Family Plan
The second step is to have a plan for your whole family. Discuss together the steps you will take during an emergency situation. Determine a place to meet and a way to keep in contact with each other assuming that electricity and power may not be available. Make sure everyone has contact information for each other and for emergency services and important resources. Plan escape routes from the house in the event of a fire or other disaster that forces you to leave. Come up with a contact that lives somewhere else, such as an out-of-town family member, as a point of contact and source of help.
Planning for emergencies when you have a special needs child goes a few steps further than a typical family plan. Plan for how you will move your child, for a source of backup power for needed devices, alternative solutions if you can’t access or use devices or mobility equipment, for transportation, and for anything else your child needs and uses on a daily basis that may be difficult or impossible to access in an emergency. This should also include having a concise but thorough record of your child’s medical needs on hand, in your car, and in an emergency kit. It should include:
- A list of medications, dosages, and how to administer
- A list of special needs and medical diagnoses
- Any allergies
- Instructions on how to use medical equipment and assistive devices
- Insurance information
- A description of the child’s triggers, likes and dislikes, and behavioral needs
- Contact information for family and doctors
Another important part of planning for an emergency, for all children including those with cerebral palsy, is teaching the child what to do. Each child should be involved in learning the family plan, the steps to take if there is a disaster, how to exit the house, how to call for help, and what to do if the family members get separated. Make sure siblings and even other adults, such as neighbors, are ready to assist if you cannot be there for your child. Be sure they know how to use devices and have access to your child’s medical plan and record.
Have a Support System in Place
In addition to having a family member or friend out of town whom you can contact for help, develop a support system in your neighborhood and community. This should include your local law enforcement. Contact your local fire and police departments so they know that you have a child with special needs and that you may require extra assistance during a disaster. Also contact any community groups or non-profits in your area that provide help for special needs individuals or anyone in an emergency. Talk to your neighbors and friends in the area and share your plan with them. Have contact information for all of these individuals and groups on hand, with each member of your family, and in your emergency kit.
Make and Maintain an Emergency Kit
The final step in making sure you and your special needs child are ready for a disaster is to make and maintain an emergency kit. This should have everything you need to survive without other resources for a few days. It is also important to maintain the kit. Change out supplies as your child’s needs change, but also replace food and water as needed to ensure you have a fresh supply that is usable. In addition to what your child specifically needs in terms of medications and assistive devices, also include the following in your emergency kit:
- Three days of non-perishable food for each person with whatever you need to access the food, such as a can opener
- Utensils for food preparation and eating
- Three gallons of water per person and for pets
- Contact information
- A battery-powered radio and flashlights plus several extra batteries
- A first aid kit and non-prescription medications like painkillers
- Blankets and extra clothing, winter clothing
- Matches in a waterproof container
- Items for hygiene, including toilet paper and hand sanitizer or wipes
- Basic tools
- Pet supplies, including food and a leash
- Emergency items for the car: jumper cables, flares, shovel, sand, spare tire and tire repair kit
Maintaining the kit and your emergency plan is crucial. Replace anything that is perishable, including medications. Change instructions as your child’s needs change. Also maintain the plan by periodically discussing it as a family and going through drills.
Being prepared for an emergency is so important for the entire family’s safety. For your child with cerebral palsy, preparation takes on a new level of importance. Be ready and you will not have to panic or suffer serious consequences during an emergency or natural disaster.