Disability Ministries Committee of the United Methodist Church

The Church Plans for Special Needs Emergencies

Emergency preparedness for churches can become a reality. Your church can become prepared to assist persons with special needs in all times of emergency from fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, disease pandemic or just a broken water main or massive power failure.

We all think that an emergency will never happen on our watch or in our building or group, but we are mistaken. When it happens and we have intentionally prepared, lives can be saved. Emergency planning insures that persons with special needs are safe, and tells them someone cares enough to prepare for their comfort zone.

There are at least three levels to congregational preparedness for persons with special needs:

  • First, the church staff and congregation can learn how to deal with special needs emergency issues occurring on the church campus.
  • Second, the church can develop a way of emergency communication with persons who must shelter in place or who are shut-in because of illness.
  • Third, the church can assist parents of children, youth or adults with special needs to prepare for congregational or community emergency.


Each congregation needs contingency plans of action that depend on the nature of the emergency. Since the plans will vary with the locale and size of the church, we cannot copy another's plan (although there are general principles) but need to tailor any action to the issues of the local church or in-house weekday school.

To keep preparedness on track, one staff person (incident coordinator) or a Disaster Preparedness Committee can be responsible for overseeing preparations, with care taken to include a person or persons with special needs or knowledge of special needs. Ushers and church staff will usually be the first responders, but all church leaders can become prepared to aid citizens with disabilities. A Church Disaster Preparedness Form can be used to determine special needs and to facilitate volunteer help with equipment and open-home space. A model form for such a survey is at the end of this article. It came from a Catholic Diocese pandemic planning website that is no longer available.

Once the forms are tallied, the Preparedness Committee, staff and leaders are ready to include more information into their plan of action. The Preparedness Committee will need to gather facility information as well as congregational special needs information, and will then be ready to equip staff and other leaders.


Staff and other leaders should know:

  • The names of persons in the congregation with special needs and have information on them. (Are they non-verbal, have seizures, etc.)
  • How to recognize and respond to types of seizures. The over-stimulation of a crisis event may bring on seizures in some persons with medical challenges.
  • Who is in charge of emergency evacuation and where triage and safe gathering would be conducted.
  • The location of designated safe areas.
  • The location of Cardio-pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) equipment and how to use it. They should also know hands-on CPR procedures.
  • The location of utility turn-offs for the campus and know who has authority or knowledge to turn them off and on.
  • The location of air inflow and air conditioning switches for a shelter-in-place emergency.
  • The permanent location of medical supplies including a large portable first aid bag. This is important whether sheltering in place or evacuating a building.
  • The names of qualified counselors in the field of post-traumatic stress syndrome for future use and awareness of the need for it by congregants.


Some churches keep a database for emergency preparedness, and they are sure to have it on flash drive or laptop as many emergencies carry a power interruption. The database allows a church to cancel functions in a disease pandemic or notify congregants or a new meeting place in case of fire or flooding. A phone tree or database allows the church to offer assistance to persons off campus. Pre-recorded assistance information should be in English and Spanish or other locally predominant language, and, to benefit persons who are deaf, telecommunication devices (TTD or TTY) should be on the phone tree.


Experience has shown that during crisis events, family members often become separated from each other, so a crisis escort will be required for each person with a special need even if family members were previously with them.

When an emergency situation occurs within the church campus, after determining visible danger, staff can dispatch escorts to persons with special needs. Persons with cognitive impairments often do not respond to verbal directions and will need companionship and physical guidance. If you cannot get to the persons, dispatch escorts to the pre-selected safe location where they can become one-on-one escorts when persons arrive there. They can also assist with triage.

Rule number one for the escort is to say, "My name is ______. I will help you find a safe place." In doing this, you have told them that you are a friend and that you care about their safety.

In an emergency situation, persons with cognitive special needs easily become disoriented, and persons with mobility or other physical impairments who move slowly or have difficulty following directions can get lost in the exodus from any room. These persons need reassurance and personal one-on-one assistance to prevent an emotional meltdown or sense of panic. Escort each one to safety (rather than tell how to get there), and once in a safe location, do not leave them alone to wander or become panicked. If you must leave, literally hand them over to a friend, name their name, and say that you will return if that is your plan.

Put a special plan in place for persons with wheelchairs, canes or walkers who use an elevator that has lost power. Power chairs are too heavy to carry with a person in the chair. Consider using a fireman's carry to take a person down stairs or use a push wheel chair with escort helpers front and back. Some mobility impaired persons may feel safer scooting down the stairs if there is time. Remember that personal mobility devices are precious because they represent independence.

The escort for a person who is blind should hold that person's hand or arm, say his or her name and who they are (usher, leader, choir director) and describe to the person what is happening and where they are going. If time, ask his or her preference for being touched for guidance.

The escort for a person who is deaf should face the light for better speech reading as well as carry a notepad and pencil for written directions, or, ideally, should use sign language. Initially, a light touch on the shoulder tells them you are there. Point to your name tag or write your name on paper. The paper could also contain one word, "safety," or "fire alarm," or other appropriate words.

Persons with speech impairments cannot ask questions or express their needs, so pencil and paper will help, and some will carry with them a story paper or story board or speech device. A story paper has pictures of actions or questions, and the person simply points to the correct picture. An alphabet board allows the older person to spell out wishes or discomfort. A speech device is similar to a typewriter in that the person types in messages, and the speech machine either prints out the message or speaks it.

Every congregation has persons with non-visible impairments such as stroke, diabetes, epilepsy, etc., and these persons may need assistance in sheltering-in-place or exiting a room or building, and may need help with medication. Respect the need of chemo or radiation patients to remain apart from a group. If you are in charge of a room that must be evacuated, check for signs of lagging or confusion for such a person who needs help.

Spiritual impact can be calming. Sometimes in the midst of chaos, someone begins humming or singing a well-known hymn, and soon others join in. Singing without words with the lips closed (humming) creates a steady, droning sound that covers other sounds and has a calming, concentrated effect on the individual. It can also be a physical prayer especially for persons with autism who cannot speak.


Emergencies such as a chemical spill or threatening air pollution cause officials to declare a shelter-in-place. This means to go immediately indoors, close all doors and windows and turn off air conditioning. If a shelter-in-place is declared while persons are in the church building, emergency plans should include drinking water, snacks and possibly a simple meal as well as diversion. Confinement can be stressful, and students with special needs require something to keep them occupied.

If congregants are sheltered in place in their homes, the church database can send out multi-language and TDD messages offering emergency help in contacting the correct authorities. The same is true for shut-ins. A shut-in is someone who is homebound because of an illness or disability. If sheltered in place, they may need reassurance that someone knows they are alone and will keep in touch with them by a phone call or email. It is important to have cell phone numbers as landlines may be down in an emergency.

The church can help shut-ins prepare by gathering local emergency numbers including a church help number, and, with the help of a home visitor, post a list in highly visible places in the home. The church should know which parishioners have a telecommunications device (known as text telephone or TTY or TTD), and if the church does not have one should know the number of the local telecommunications interpreter that enables them to communicate through a central switchboard.


Persons who are caregivers for their parents may find that emergency planning information given for parents of children with special needs can also guide them in their preparations. The fragility of some older parents means that special identification, a grab bag and the following information will make their caregivers feel more secure.

What can the church do to help caregivers of with special challenges prepare for an emergency in the home or community?

First, establish a trusting relationship with parents. Listen to their concerns and help them share their emergency information with the church. Gather personal information about each student and his or her special needs. This information should be kept under lock, and would be used only in case of a mass in-house emergency or personal injury.

Second, help parents accept the fact that in an emergency it is possible for them to become separated from their child, so their child of any age needs to be prepared. The confidence of preparing for an emergency reduces stress when an emergency happens. Special needs persons of any age should carry identification at all times, and each person should have a "Go Bag" at home that is never moved from its location unless it is an emergency. The information file at the end of this article shows a "Go Bag," but other "Go Bag" contents can be downloaded from the web.

Identification by name, address and impairment is of prime importance when a child of any age becomes separated from a parent. Most emergencies involve water damage, so laminate this information, and carry a copy in a plastic bag in the "Go Bag." Some parents of autistic persons have an identification microchip embedded under the skin of their child, and the child needs to be taught to proudly point to it. A laminated pocket or wallet card that says, "I am deaf," or "I cannot speak," or other information along with the person's name can help an escort or rescue worker. Third, help each family prepare an at-home emergency plan that includes emergency contact numbers, the location of the "Go Bag" and a memorized list of what to do first for each person's safety. For example:

  • 1. Grab your Go Bag,
  • 2. Exit the building,
  • 3. Meet at your family's pre arranged location.
  • 4. Stay out of an emergency house, and do not return for pets or phones or anything.
Also provide key words for a shelter in place directive. For example:
  • 1. Grab your Go Bag,
  • 2. Go to ____ room,
  • 3. Stay there and do not leave.


The church has a responsibility to keep people safe, to keep them informed, and to help them plan for emergencies. The church has a responsibility to maintain contact with shut-ins and persons who are sheltered in place. The church can work cooperatively with parents of children of all ages with special needs to help keep them safe during emergencies. The church family is founded on a love that reaches out to keep each member not only safe but also cherished. Preparation can spell l-o-v-e.


A Grab and Go bag, clearly labeled and not similar to other tote bags in the house should always be kept in the same place.

It should contain

  • Identification of person with list of disabilities and medications. This should be in a plastic zip-lock bag.
  • A list of all doctors.
  • Extra set of eyeglasses and hearing aid batteries.
  • List of the styles of medical devices used.
  • Extra copies of insurance documents.
  • A flashlight and extra batteries.
  • A set of clothing.
  • Bottled water.
  • Snack food.
  • Favorite toy or book.
  • Story board for emergencies, if appropriate.


This card, carried at all times, does not take the place of the id and medication list for the go bag. Large print puts the reader at ease when the card is suddenly placed in front of them. It is small enough for a pocket. An optional contact address or phone number may be appropriate.

HELLO, My name is _______________________
I am
______Unable to speak
______In need of help
______I will write a request


The Federal Emergency Management Agency has started a program to assist places of worship prepare for disasters encountered not only in their location, but to assist in the community. Churches can and should make sure that people with disabilities are included in these plans.

  • Faith-Based Organizations Community of Practice
  • Developing High Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship
Please note that for best effectiveness, these actions require preparation. If you wait until a disaster happens, they may not help in the way they could have.


  • U. S. Department of Homeland Security publication list, including Prepare for Emergencies Now: Information for People with Disabilities, available in several languages and formats
  • "Workplace Safety Measures", Yvonne LaRose, HR.com
  • "72 Hour Special Needs Emergency Survival Guide", Garry Stratton, A Different Dream
  • Functional Needs Support Services from Texas Department of Public Safety
  • Emergency Preparedness Tips ASL videos from the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission. The principles are applicable to all states.

  • "We Prepare Everyday", Ready Campaign PSA about preparation for people with disabilities.

    View in FEMA Multimedia Library

  • Red Cross Preparedness
  • "Confronting the Challenge of Evacuating People with Disabilities", Emergency Management, September 2014.


  • Anita Cameron, "7 Position CERTs with Disabilities Can Serve When Disaster Strikes" The Mobility Resources, January 3, 2014.
  • Elaine Pittman, "How to Include Diverse, Vulnerable Populations in Emergency Preparedness" Emergency Management, April 2011.

Copyright Naomi Mitchum 2009
Update: Tim Vermande, July 2016
May be reproduced if not for sale.