This is the first of a two-part series about a Niagara University training program that helps first responders prepare for emergencies involving individuals with disabilities.
By Kyle Richardson, Public Affairs Specialist
The Nation’s emergency response community is dedicated to protecting the safety and security of those in need. Our firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMS providers, and other public safety personnel work to keep the public safe – including individuals who have difficulties with seeing, hearing, speaking and other disabilities.
A New York-based university has developed a program to assist first responders with serving the disability community during emergencies. Called First Responders Disability Awareness Training (FRDAT), the Niagara University (NU) program helps train first responders on how to be prepare for responding to emergencies involving individuals with disabilities.
FRDAT Project Director David Whalen tells FirstNet that the program has trained more than 950 New York State representatives from 50 emergency management agencies, 71 law enforcement departments, and 89 firefighter/EMS departments through a combination of direct and train-the-trainer formats since it was established in 2010.
“Four years ago, the state of New York through their Developmental Disabilities Planning Council (DDPC) recognized that first responders needed to better understand how to truly and accurately respond to people with disabilities during an emergency and during any call,” David says. “It is important that first responders have some base awareness when it comes to responding to a person with a disability, how to accurately and appropriately interact, what is proper etiquette, and what might they need to know if they’re going to be more involved with the person.”
David himself is familiar with the needs of the disabled community as his son has cerebral palsy. His experience working with the disability community goes back to 1986, and in 2004 he started the Disability Awareness Training program. David also chairs the NY State Independent Living Council Emergency Management Preparedness committee and sits on the NY State Office of Emergency Management Human Services committee.
“I came into this as a disability advocate and a person who understood how to respond to people with disabilities. But I needed to learn the first responder world,” he says. “Most first responders understand the need to receive this and welcome it because they see how they themselves, or their colleagues, or their peers could be in some challenging situations that they know they’re going to need to think quick on their feet and respond appropriately. An inappropriate response could lead to some bad, sometimes catastrophic results that no one wants.”
David and his staff have developed public safety discipline specific curriculum in order to train those professionals appropriately. “While some could say I’m going to go in front of folks and give a training on disability, if they don’t customize (per public safety discipline) or give that audience exactly what they need, they’re going to do an injustice to the disability community and the professionals in that audience.”
With more responders attending the FRDAT training and realizing the benefits of it – combined with an increase in the number of people with a disability – David says his team began expanding the program to other states throughout the nation. The Arkansas Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities has awarded a grant to NU for their state, while the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities has approved a mini-grant to introduce the program in their state.
“When someone sits in my audience, I say 'you are sitting here and have just committed to train your department’,” David says. “The other thing I say to people is, maybe I’m training you professionally, but you are going to use this personally, and disability is in your life – whether in your family or someone you know. If it’s not in your life today it’s going to be in your life someday.”
View photos of the university below: