Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How safe will the District's children be when disaster strikes?

Save the Children's A National Report Card on Protecting Children During Disasters reports that the District of Columbia is one of 12 states of 51 counted (the 50 states plus DC) achieving three of the four criteria for disaster preparedness for children.   The four criteria are:
  1. having a plan for evacuating children in early learning (child development, child care)
  2. reunifying families after a disaster
  3. having a plan for evacuating children with special needs from early learning settings
  4. having an evacuation plan for schools.

Twelve states—including Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, California, and Maryland—have achieved all four criteria.   Of the 12, five states took the 2009 scorecard to heart and improved their preparedness for children.

Save the Children considers the four criteria to be minimum standards, the floor for preparedness, not the ceiling.

The District fell short of scoring four for four because, according to the scorecard, it does not have an evacuation plan for schools.   However, the 2008 District Response Plan states that the Board of Education has directed "all schools to develop school emergency response plans and establish school-based Emergency Response Teams."

Notwithstanding the assessment of Save the Children regarding preparedness plan development by child development facilities, questions remain about the rigor of these plans, the capacity of facility staff to carry the plans out, and the logic of having early learning professionals and not disaster experts develop the plans.   These same questions apply to out of school time (OST) programs. Further complicating matters is that there is not a central list of all OST providers, making immediate contact and communication impossible.   Finally, the city's 2008 emergency response plan does not seem to consider the reality that the city's hundreds of child development facilities each have their own response plan or that OST programs may or may not have disaster response plans.

At a minimum, all child- and youth-serving programs should have well designed disaster/emergency plans, perhaps using the foundation laid in the Department of Health's and Department of Human Services' 2007 final rules for child development facilities.   The regulations require facilities to comply with Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services among other rules.   According to the rules, each early learning facility

  • shall develop and implement policies and procedures including in the areas of emergency evacuation and sheltering in place (330.1, p. 003823)
  • shall establish and implement emergency contingency plans for medical and non-medical emergencies including during natural/man-made emergencies that require evacuation from the building, temporary displacement, or sheltering in place. The decision may be authorized by a government official. (360.9, p. 003850; 369.9, p. 003862)
  • shall develop and implement specific protocols for evacuating infants, toddlers, and non-ambulatory children in a safe and prompt manner. (369.8, p. 003862)

As a start, the District government, its families, and its children would be well served to go well beyond these final rules by:

  • ensuring that Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency approve all disaster/emergency preparedness plans of all programs serving children and youth by a date certain.
  • creating a central database of all programs serving children and youth, with the immediate emphasis on OST programs, and developing and implementing a process to regularly update the contact information.
  • reviewing and updating the 2008 emergency response plan for the city.

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