Denis Fowler, Director of Health & Safety Services at the University of York, told IFSEC Global how his team is improving security and safety provision for more vulnerable members of the community.
December is a good month to think about the safety needs of everybody in our communities and to remember that those needs aren’t all the same. For all safety and security teams, not just at campuses and universities like mine, this is particularly important. We have a legal, duty of care obligation to ensure that help is accessible to people with disabilities when they need it.
The need to support those with disabilities is reinforced by a variety of regulations across the globe, including the UK’s Equality Act (which incorporated the former Disability Discrimination Act), the US’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Australia’s Disability Discrimination Act (DDA).
In this context, what do we mean by disability?
It is any condition that might affect a person’s capacity to evacuate to a safe place, to call for help or to follow safety instructions during a fire, natural disaster, malicious attack or other emergency incident. The list of such conditions is long. It covers impairments to mobility, vision, hearing, cognitive functions or the ability to communicate.
A person with a disability may have more than one impairment, and their condition may fluctuate, meaning that it’s relatively easy for them to do something at one time but impossible at another (or vice versa).
At the University of York, we’ve worked hard to meet our legal obligation and to create a welcoming, inclusive community.
As well as complying with the law, we’ve put in place additional measures to enable our security team to deliver rapid first response. I want to share some of our approaches with you, in particular our use of emergency response, command and control technology.
Using it, we’ve focused on three particular challenges:
- Identifying individuals in our community affected by disabilities;
- Understanding the nature of the disability and the type of support they’ll need in an emergency;
- Knowing the locations of individuals with support needs during an emergency and giving our first responders the tools to get to them more quickly.
At York we’ve addressed those challenges – identifying, understanding and knowing the real-time location of people with disabilities during an emergency – by implementing the SafeZone solution from CriticalArc.
With regard to the first point, there’s actually no legal obligation for people to disclose information about a disability they may have, so it’s up to us to encourage and facilitate disclosure by showing how it can benefit the individual and improve their safety. At York we’ve created an opt-in user group for notifications to those who need a Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan (PEEP).
Our students and staff are also encouraged to fill out their profile using the SafeZone App so our security team knows their name, what they look like, their medical diagnosis, instructions for how best to respond to any medical incident, and instructions about which family members to contact etc.
It can be particularly challenging to reach out to and identify individuals with temporary mobility issues (somebody recovering from recent surgery for example, or with an injury such as a broken leg). It’s worth remembering that people in this category may be more vulnerable because they’re not accustomed to looking out for the closest means of escape or thinking about how their temporary mobility problem might affect their ability to evacuate.
Here are three specific illustrations of how we’re using the SafeZone solution:
It’s important to remember that disability will affect almost all of us at some time in our lives, whether as a result of a life-long condition, a temporary illness or injury, or simply because of ageing,
A significant problem for people with hearing impairments is the tendency of society to rely on audible alarms to communicate warnings. This can be particularly problematic for those working or studying late who don’t have the benefit of prompts from others. Various solutions are available, and have their uses, but also disadvantages. Pagers can be issued, but these require separate systems to operate and usage is inconsistent. Visual warning devices and electronic signage can be installed, and is useful in some locations, but they can be costly and of course it’s impractical to ensure complete coverage.
With SafeZone we’ve been able to send out emergency notifications to the user’s smartphones which, unlike pagers or dedicated devices, are much more likely to be carried all the time. SafeZone issues a visible alert with an audible tone and vibration, and it lets our team give specific emergency instructions (evacuate, hide in place, remain vigilant etc) or more general advice.
This means our control team also now has the tools be proactive in confirming alerts, using the data we have about individuals with specific disabilities to verify that alerts are received, understood and acted upon. Looking ahead, we know that CriticalArc is developing enhancements to improve how the system interacts with Android’s built-in screen reader for the partially sighted, and we understand this will be closely followed by similar enhancements for iOS – both of which will be useful.
There is no one ideal solution that’s perfect for everyone. The important thing is to evaluate the range of technologies and tools available and identify which best suits the needs of the individual.
The challenge varies with the individual’s level of mobility, but our team’s priority is to ensure that everyone has the support they need to evacuate in the event of an emergency. One weakness of typical evacuation plans is that they tend to assume that the individual – a wheelchair user for example – will be in a specific location when an emergency occurs, and obviously this may not be the case.
SafeZone lets the user raise an alert with the touch of a button on their phone, instantly relaying their identity and precise location to the security team. So, if a person with mobility problems can’t get to their evacuation point or muster location, we will know about it sooner rather than later and dispatch our first responders more quickly.
Recurring medical conditions
At York we’ve also focused particularly on medical conditions that may not be evident all the time but which, when they occur, can incapacitate or leave people temporarily at risk, such as seizures. Most people are aware of epilepsy but there are many circumstances that cause temporary incapacity, including drug overdoses, withdrawal symptoms, preeclampsia, low blood sugar, cognitive impairments and psychological problems.
In the case of seizures, these can be alarming to witness and may cause people who might otherwise help to panic. While some bystanders may have the knowledge and experience to intervene and stabilise the individual affected to reduce the chances of them harming themselves, that’s often not the case.
We’ve found SafeZone particularly useful for situations like this when people don’t know how to respond – whether that’s someone who senses that they are about to suffer a seizure or other medical emergency, or a bystander. It’s now easy for our students and staff to trigger an alert and get first response help and advice from our security team, and it’s easier for us to work with emergency services and help to coordinate a targeted response.
One final note: as organisation and universities address how to best protect those with disabilities, it’s important to understand there’s a willingness by most staff and students to use technology to solve a wide range of issues. In fact, increasingly, people have an expectation that organisations will provide technology to help solve various challenges.
So, we are confident that our commitment to using the best technologies available while investing in our health and safety team members will continue to serve, protect and accommodate the needs of all members of our community.
Denis Fowler is currently employed at the University of York in the role of Director of Health and Safety. Denis has worked at the University since September 2006 and is responsible for the day-to-day operational aspects of managing a diverse team of health, safety, insurance and occupational training specialists.
Denis is currently the institutional lead for the implementation of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (Prevent Agenda), which considers the need to prevent staff, students and authorised contractors from being drawn into terrorism and reports directly to the Governing Body (Council) and is monitored by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).
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