Braille Monitor                                                    May 2008

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Skills of Blind People Can Prove Lifesaving


by Ken Silberman

Ken SilbermanFrom the Editor: The following article is excerpted from the World Disasters Report for 2007 prepared by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The entire report is available online at <http://www.ifrc.org/publicat/wdr2007/summaries.asp>. It can be downloaded in plain text from the original PDF for the convenience of blind readers.

Ken Silberman is an engineer, lawyer, and longtime member of the National Federation of the Blind. When he first applied for an NFB scholarship, he already had an impressive history of activities to his credit—things like scuba diving and work with the volunteer fire department. So it is no surprise that he has gone on to become a trained community emergency response team member. This is what he says:

In the fall of 2005 I saw an article in the local newspaper talking about an upcoming meeting to organize a community emergency response team (CERT). The article said that everyone was welcome and that there were no age or physical requirements. So I went because I was interested in learning disaster skills that would help me and my neighbors. We were told that the purpose of a CERT team is to give citizens the basic training necessary to provide emergency services in the first seventy-two hours of a disaster when professional responders and high-tech equipment will be en route but unavailable. I signed up. The twenty-hour course was held at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. It was taught by retired and active emergency medical services (EMS) personnel and covered basic training in disaster preparedness, fire safety, disaster medical operations, light search-and-rescue operations, CERT organization, and disaster psychology and terrorism. It concluded with a disaster simulation.

The instructors were nervous about having me in the course but did let me participate. I was able to download the textbook from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Website in accessible Microsoft Word files. I had classmates and home readers help me with other handouts when they were not redundant to the book and not accessible. The hands-on exercises also went well. Because we were trained to complement each others' skills as teammates, I simply used my white cane or sighted assistance as appropriate. Conversely, my sighted colleagues relied on me in poor visibility situations. Blindness skills proved invaluable in the search-and-rescue phase of the training when we had to traverse a pitch-black, multi-story maze and apartment, looking for victims. There was a lot of panic due to disorientation. However, it was business as usual for me. So I ended up leading the operation. The instructors and students accepted me completely after that.

As for the equipment, the students had to work with the basics. The first-aid kits consisted of just bandages, compresses, and the like. So there was no instrumentation to read. Real blood would be sticky and warm and would be discernible through gloves. The fire extinguishers were simply point and shoot. I put out the test-stand fire by pointing at the forward base of the heat and sweeping the jet back and forth while moving it toward the back of the fire. In a real fire the extinguisher will either work or not work. The gauge is really for maintenance. Shutting off utilities was easy. Circuit breakers and gas and water valves were easy to feel.

During the advanced Metro Rail [underground] training, my cane skills saved the day again. I had no trouble and used sighted assistance near the power rail. Blindness skills were critical during a fire simulation in a rail carriage. I was able to cut right through the smoke, grab the emergency kit from under the seat, and direct people to the door at the end of the car. The transit police were very supportive after that. As a result of all of this training, I was elected as the deputy coordinator of the Greenbelt-CERT in November 2006. I hope that my experience will expand the discussion of disabilities and disaster preparedness to go beyond caring for disabled persons, to making them service providers. This will prevent responders from diverting their attention from victims to people with disabilities who are quite capable of taking care of themselves. Second, a pool of talented and capable disabled folks are likely to be either not used or underused. In a real disaster all hands will be needed on deck.

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