Bridging the Gap Between First Responders and the Disabled

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Photo by Shel Segal / OUTLOOK Local first responders from the Pasadena Police and Fire Departments were joined by senior leaders from Villa Esperanza Services, AbilityFirst and Professional Child Development Associates during a recent seminar at Ambassador Auditorium.
Photo by Shel Segal / OUTLOOK
Local first responders from the Pasadena Police and Fire Departments were joined by senior leaders from Villa Esperanza Services, AbilityFirst and Professional Child Development Associates during a recent seminar at Ambassador Auditorium.

Emergencies can happen without warning. And although first responders do their best, there are times they come across situations that make the emergency even more challenging, including communicating with individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Villa Esperanza Services, AbilityFirst and Professional Child Development Associates joined forces recently and presented a seminar and training session at Ambassador Auditorium to help train families and caregivers how to work with law enforcement and first responders.
Aaron Kitzman, vice president of adult programs for Villa Esperanza Services, said by working together, both first responders and caregivers can improve their chances of navigating a problem with fewer difficulties.
“We want to educate families, people with disabilities and first responders to improve communication, so that if there is a crisis — such as a missing person — families and police and fire can work together and hopefully get a better outcome,” Kitzman said.
First responders, who have to make quick decisions, don’t always know how best to communicate with people with developmental disabilities. That is where family and caregivers can help out.
“Often times, first responders haven’t had a lot of training to work with these individuals,” Kitzman said. “People with developmental or intellectual disabilities don’t always communicate the way you and I might.”
If you are a family member or caregiver of someone who has this type of disability, there are some simple steps you can take ahead of time to help both sides.
“Hopefully, people with disabilities can be taught to know their phone numbers, their name, their family’s names,” he said. “More than that, it’s how to trust first responders. And part of that is training first responders on how to approach people. Different people with different disabilities, depending on how you approach them, are going to react differently.”
He also said it would be helpful to have some information on the disabled individual printed out ahead of time and ready to go in the event of an emergency.
“Do a one-page profile,” Kitzman said. “Put all the important stuff — and a picture — on one page, first responders aren’t going to have time to read a 12-page packet. Do one page with a few bullet points, that they can look at. They can put that over the radio and that can be very helpful to the people who show up. … If you can just give them a couple of tools, you’ll have a much better outcome.”
Brian Herritt is a former police officer with a son on the autism spectrum who trains families and police officers across the country on ways to prepare for safe and effective interactions between individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and law enforcement and first responders. Herritt said he learned from personal experience that communication between first responders and the disabled needed to be improved.
“I realized pretty quickly there was a need for training,” said Herritt, whose son is now 14. “I started years ago in hopes of reaching the first responders who would deal with my son. I think it’s transformed into dealing with every person with special needs.”
He added it is difficult sometimes for those two worlds to come together in a cooperative manner and said that’s exactly what the goal here is.
“We’re trying to bridge that gap with law enforcement,” Herritt said. As a family of one with special needs, I know it’s hard to open up and talk to people. There’s a fear in dealing with police officers and firefighters. We know they don’t understand our complex lives. It’s the same way I know police officers have a hard time in opening up because people don’t understand their lives. In coming from both worlds, (I’m) trying to bridge that gap.”
Herritt also said first responders — especially police officers — need to keep a few things in mind and change their ways when dealing with the disabled.
“Basically, the No. 1 need with people with special needs is patience,” he said. “You’ve got to be patient and you’ve got to slow things down. Law enforcement is a fast-moving job. But what we’re trying to teach them is to slow everything down. And we do that to keep everyone safe.”
Capt. Tim Sell of the Pasadena Fire Department, agreed with Herritt, saying the more first responders initially know about a person in an emergency situation, the better chance there is for a positive resolution.
“There is a growing need in every city in interacting with the developmentally disabled,” Sell said. “You go into a home where there’s an emergency and if the caretaker is not there, if it’s not someone who is intimately knowledgeable of what this person’s needs are, we’re really restricted on what can we do for them. We want to be sensitive to the person. There are certain things [the caregiver] can do to help us be successful.”

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