Vulnerable Populations Behind Walls

There is finally meaningful and productive discussion and actions in emergency management circles about vulnerable and under-served populations. It’s a step in the right direction, though still has a long way to go, with many concerns yet found in regulation and bias which must be identified, assessed, and changed. There are, however, other vulnerable populations which are rarely spoken of – those behind walls. These are persons incarcerated in prisons and jails, those receiving mental health treatments at in-patient facilities, and those with physical and cognitive disabilities in group residential settings. Hospitals and nursing homes also have vulnerable populations in this regard, and while concerns still exist and progress must yet be made, these facilities seem largely to have made more progress than others when it comes to disaster preparedness for their facilities and those in their care.

Populations behind walls are often forgotten during disasters, either because it is assumed they are someone else’s responsibility, or because the facility itself seems to be overlooked as a part of the community. People also tend to have biases toward the populations of these facilities – especially jails and prisons; though plenty of bias also exists against those receiving mental health treatment and those with physical and cognitive disability. We also likely have subconscious impressions of the facilities themselves, especially larger jails and prisons, being physically formidable and resilient, therefore having less vulnerability to certain disasters. While that may be true for some hazards, it’s certainly not true for all. Rarely do we find these facilities identified in emergency operations plans, much less addressing the potential needs of their residents during disasters. These facilities, and their residents, are still part of your community.

Specific to prisons, the GAO recently cited the Federal Bureau of Prisons for lack of consistent data in this regard, and the National Institute of Prisons posted a paper published in December 2013 by Northeastern University which states that “prisons are not prepared to respond to and recover from disasters.” and that prisoners “seem to be a forgotten subset of our population when it comes to emergency management.” In fact, according to the Northeastern University paper, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons provides guidance and tools to support emergency management, they have few requirements.

Certainly, there are challenges associated with all these facilities, particularly in regard to emergency management; and I don’t envy the responsibility the owners and operators (sometimes government, sometimes private or non-profit) have for ensuring the wellbeing of residents. Facilities are generally more concerned with security and routine safety risks than disasters. Residents of all these facilities are, even if temporarily, wards of these facilities, with the owners and operators of these facilities being legally responsible for their protection and wellbeing.

One of the bigger concerns for any of these facilities is movement of residents. Relocating a number of residents within the same facility can be a significant enough challenge, but this pales in comparison to evacuating the entire population. That said, no one ever properly labeled emergency management as being ‘easy’. Movement of residents is only one of many concerns, however, as the residents have the same needs as any other people in our communities during a disaster. Staff must also be protected, and in times of disaster continuity of operations can also be a significant concern for these facilities if staff are not able to get to work.

What to do? Certainly, appropriate regulators and those having legal authority over these types of facilities need to reaffirm any existing requirements and move to create (and enforce) requirements where gaps exist. This would be the top-down approach. While I think we’d like to see owners and operators assume the responsibility themselves, that’s much less likely to happen due to costs. I think there is also an opportunity for emergency management to influence this. We should see state emergency management officials, especially State Directors, working with their governors and appropriate state agencies to influence change. Local emergency managers, likewise, should be reinforcing these needs to State Directors and elected officials, while also working with the facilities themselves to open communications and begin partnerships. Emergency management revolves around partnerships and addressing issues should always begin with a conversation.

When a gap is left untended, the consequences are not only borne by those directly responsible, but also by communities. If a facility is impacted by a disaster, the consequences may fall to the community to address. These types of facilities MUST undergo regular assessments, mitigate hazards, and appropriately prepare for all hazards. The communities they are in MUST be part of the process, likewise the facilities should also participate in these efforts with their communities. The sharing of information is critical for these efforts to be successful.

How is your relationship with these types of facilities in your community?

© 2022 Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC®

4 thoughts on “Vulnerable Populations Behind Walls

  1. Hi Tim. This may be a mindset issue. In ’10 there was an enormous wildfire in the Carmel Forest in northern Israel. Killed ~44 ppl. ~38 of them were from the Israel Prison Service, their bus got trapped between falling burning trees. They were on their way to rescue inmates from a prison that was in the fire’s path.

  2. Hey Tim – just discovered this blog and have been reading through a lot of it. Thank you so much for your posts – I’m learning a lot!

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