There’s no question about it: evacuations are stressful. If they’re required because of an impending disaster or emergency, they’re even more difficult and scary. For people with a disability or those partnered with a Service Dog, evacuations require even more planning and thought than normal. Ensure you and your partner remain as stress-free as possible by preparing ahead of time and knowing what resources are available for you. Here’s steps you need to take to develop a disaster or evacuation plan for people with disabilities who use Service Dogs.

Evacuation Basics

In theory, evacuations are relatively simple. When told to evacuate, you calmly load up bags you have packed, place the family and critters in the car, and dutifully head off in a direction that is not experiencing calamity. Everyone else does the same thing, at the same time. Some people get a flight somewhere safe. Others decide to hole up at home and try to make the best of things. Regardless of the choice people make, evacuation preparations remain similar.

Go Bag for EvacuationsIf you’re in an area prone to natural disasters, you probably already know to have plenty of water and shelf-stable food available, along with light and heat sources that don’t rely on electricity. You may even have a “go bag” containing all the stuff the government recommends for roughing it on your own for a few days. If you don’t have an emergency kit put together, do that first. Use the basic FEMA guidelines, but modify it based on your own needs. Pack one for your Service Dog, too — here’s a Service Dog emergency preparations guide on that. If you need ideas on what to include, here’s the ultimate guide to go bags.

Next, do what you can to protect your home and its contents. Make sure you know what types of disasters are possible in your community. Different types of threats require different preparations. If you’re evacuating a wildfire, then turn off gas lines. Bring all yard furniture in or place it in the pool. Put a ladder outside against your home in case firefighters need roof access. Take curtains down and move all bedding and furniture to the middle of the room.

Before leaving during hurricane evacuations, your goal should be to minimize potential damage from standing water. Board up windows. Layer sandbags. Unplug all electronics and place them on high shelves or on the bed. Secure all cleaning chemicals in water-proof bags and place them high up so there’s less risk of them leeching into the water. Bring in or tie down everything in your yard. Move precious items and things that cannot be replaced upstairs, or take them with you. You could also seal them inside of plastic bags and attach the bags to a pool noodle so they’ll float.

Disabilities and Evacuations

Once you’ve safeguarded your home and you’ve got a basic emergency kit packed for you and your Service Dog, you’ll need to consider the impact your disability could have on your safety during an evacuation. The government suggests being prepared to be totally on your own for 3 days — could you do that? If so, are you prepared to do so? If not, have you made alternative plans or arrangements for securing assistance from a neighbor or friend?

Keep in mind that during evacuations, let alone disasters, you may not be able to access hospitals or the drugstore. Emergency services will be bogged down with slow response times. They may not even be able to get to you. You will need to make plans to have everything you need on hand. You’ll may need to prepare for alternative care or for professional assistance.

Prioritize Safety and Communication During Evacuations

Ask your doctor for a refill on your medications. Carry at least 2 weeks worth with you, if possible. If you use medical equipment that requires electricity, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about how you can prepare for its use during a power outage. If you are dependent on dialysis or other life-sustaining treatment, know the location and availability of more than one treatment facility.

medic alert bracelet
Medic Alert Bracelets don’t have to be boring!

Contact your city or county government’s emergency management agency or office. Many local offices keep lists of people with disabilities so they can be helped quickly in a sudden emergency. Prepare a detailed packet of information for emergency services, shelter staff, or rescue volunteers. Include information about your disability, your medical history, current treatments, how your needs are best met, and emergency protocols. Place copies of your Service Dog’s vaccination records and any other paperwork you have in the packet as well.

Wear a medic alert bracelet, necklace, or ankle band. During emergencies, first responders and rescue personnel will be moving fast. Make it obvious you have medical needs, and do everything in your power to streamline their job so they can care for you appropriately. Keep your Service Dog dressed comfortably and appropriately. The volunteers and staff assisting during evacuations are stressed, in a hurry, and dealing with lots of unhappy people. Do what you can to minimize confrontation and access challenges.

FEMA offers some additional tips for emergency preparations for various disabilities, including mobility, hearing loss, behavioral,  neurological, and others. They very strongly recommend that if you have a life threatening allergy or highly specialized medical needs that you write them on your forearm in Sharpie. This will protect you if you’re unable to communicate, have been injured, or are unconscious.

Preparing Your Service Dog For Evacuations

evacuations with a service dog bring a crateWhen it comes to your Service Dog, make sure you’ve got all the basics covered. Pack plenty of food and jugs of water. Make sure you have a leash and two collars with up to date ID tags – one to wear, and one for just in case. Throw a slip lead in your backpack or purse as an ultimate backup. Check your dog’s working gear. Don’t forget bowls, and consider bringing a lightweight toy or bone.

If you can, arrange to bring your Service Dog’s crate. Evacuations are stressful and scary for people. For dogs, the constant chaos and tension introduce a whole new level of concern. Give your Service Dog something familiar and a way to get away from all the motion and frenzy. At some shelters, your Service Dog may not be allowed access unless they have a crate with them or you’re willing to allow a crate to be placed in your sleeping area for your dog.

The government mandates that emergency shelters allow your Service Dog. FEMA and Red Cross staff and volunteers undergo extensive training for helping Service Dog teams during emergencies. Guidelines also say that your Service Dog cannot be separated from you, even if the shelter requires that pets be placed in a separate housing area from people. You can find a list of pet-friendly emergency and evacuation shelters here.

Remember that your Service Dog may not behave quite like themselves. Not only may they be affected by the storm, wildfire, or event, but they may also be stressed by the evacuation itself. The calmer you can be, the calmer they’ll be. Consider bringing along some melatonin or valerian to help your Service Dog settle. Neither are sedating, and they’re very effective with little to no side effects.

Final Considerations For Evacuations

No matter how you decide to handle an evacuation, make certain you’ve done all you can to remain safe. If you’re staying behind, this includes making sure you have escape routes available or plans on handling unexpected complications. It’s better to over prepare than under prepare. If you’re driving, bring at least one 5 gallon can of gas and plenty of blankets, food, and water. There may be fuel shortages along the evacuation route. You may end up stuck in creeping traffic without access to lodging, relief areas, or refreshments.

Make a plan and stick to the plan. Know where you can obtain medical care and how you’ll access it. Know the number of an emergency veterinarian and vets along the evac route. Keep your medical information handy. Be prepared for questions and pushback concerning your Service Dog. Stay polite; stay professional. There’s a lot going on for everyone. The more prepared you can be, the smoother your experience will be. Good luck, and be safe.

Evacuation Resources

Find information, resources, contact info, and other important updates.

Hurricane Irma – September 2017

Download the FEMA mobile app to receive news and updatesEvacuations For Hurricane Irma
Irma Evacuation Zones
Find Your Evacuation Zone
Stay Connected With First Responders and Family Via Free Wifi
Gas Buddy: Find a Gas Station Near You With Fuel Available
Orlando: Find Water, Showers, Transportation, Sandbags, and Shelters
Treasure Coast: Evacuation Shelters and Special Needs Shelters
Tampa: Evacuation Shelters and Special Needs Shelters
U-Haul: Free Storage For 30 Days to Protect Valuables
Pet Friendly Evacuation Shelters
List of Evacuation Shelters By County
Special Needs Shelters
Disaster Preparedness Kit – Pet Checklist
Get Free Public Transport to a Shelter

Featured Photo Credit Sgt. 1st Class Keith Bart, UH-60 Black Hawk (medevac) crew chief, Company C, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Aviation Regiment, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, carries an animal to safety, during a flood rescue and recovery operations. (Photo by Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Office, 4th Infantry Division)

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