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36 hours alone in a bed without so much as a hot drink: lessons to be learned from Storm Emma

The emergency effort co-ordinated by the NECC was impressive, writes Tom Clonan, but there is still a learning curve in reaching out to all vulnerable people.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

ONE OF THE key concerns in the recent cold snap was the plight of the homeless and rough sleepers. Through a combination of initiatives – such as the provision of extra emergency beds – along with a high impact public information campaign, at time of writing, this particularly vulnerable population appears to have survived the recent sub-zero weather event.

Throughout the crisis, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy asked members of the public to report the whereabouts  of vulnerable rough sleepers to the Homeless Executive. Thus far, there have been no reports of fatalities or other serious injury among this vulnerable group.

Frontline workers – particularly health workers – with acute care responsibilities in hospitals throughout the state made heroic efforts to get to work throughout the red weather alerts. HSE management and hospital managers liaised with the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre (NECC) at national and local level to ensure that our hospitals and vital medical services remained functioning throughout the period of the weather emergency.

In the case of out-reach services, nursing and vital medical home visits were assisted by members of the Civil Defence and Defence Forces. Vital in-patient services such as dialysis or critical medical treatments such as chemotherapy were also assisted by members of the Civil Defence and Defence Forces.

Efforts have become more cohesive with every emergency event

Such liaison between the HSE and other State or statutory organisations improves and becomes more cohesive with each successive weather event or emergency. As a consequence, inter-operational communication and effectiveness develops formally at national level through the NECC and organically at local level through trial and error and coal-face experience.

The NECC is overseen by the National Emergency Coordination Group (NECG) chaired by Sean Hogan. Under Sean Hogan’s direction and leadership, the NECC has grown from strength to strength over the last decade and in the case of severe weather events in the past six months,  has assisted government in effectively mobilising its emergency response and – crucially – communicating that to the public. Each national crisis has provided the key stakeholders with a unique learning curve.

However, there are still a few gaps that can be filled in our emergency response capacity – some lessons that can be built upon from the current cycle of severe weather events.

Still some gaps in complicated cases

In the case of persons with disabilities living in our communities, their status as vulnerable citizens is complicated by a number of factors such as their care arrangements and assisted living service providers. Approximately 80% of the care hours funded by the HSE to persons with disabilities living in the community are provided by a myriad of non-statutory care providers. As such, their lines of communication with State actors such as the HSE are complex and unclear.

I was contacted by a number of persons with disabilities on Saturday – at the height of the red weather warning. One person, a wheelchair user with a number of other physical challenges informed me that they had been left for almost 36 hours without assistance. On Thursday, the day that the public were warned to remain indoors from 4pm, this individual’s suffering began.

On Thursday morning, the individual who contacted me – living independently with an assisted living package in their own home – was advised that they had to choose between spending the next 24-36 hours in their wheelchair, or go to bed. The person considered that being forced to stay in bed was better than being forced to stay in a wheelchair for that extended period of time.

They were then placed in bed and a number of cold meals and drinks were left within reach of the individual. The person was then left on their own until late on Friday evening. Whilst the country braced itself and awaited the storm, this individual was left to their own devices with no opportunity to toilet with assistance, wash themselves or have a warm drink or hot meal.

“Not even a slice of toast”

Another individual informed me that their care service was withdrawn without any notice from the care service provider. There was no phone call or update and the individual, with limited mobility and poor gross or fine motor function was left alone – again for almost 36 hours. During this period, they were unable to light a fire, make a hot drink or a hot meal. “Not even a slice of toast,” they told me.

In light of these phone calls and emails, I made contact with a number of State agencies and national organisations in order to ascertain the number of persons with disabilities who live independently in the community and whose assisted living packages might become compromised during a severe weather alert.

The Disability Federation of Ireland (DFI) was unable to provide figures or statistics on this matter. The Centre for Independent Living (CIL) confirmed to me that it was difficult to get precise information on this community of citizens nationwide. However, it was able to tell me that CIL has approximately 100 such clients nationwide and that they were in constant contact with them throughout the severe weather event.

I contacted the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA), which provides a large number of assisted living services throughout Ireland and which does sterling work in this regard. The IWA stated that it has approximately 1,600 such clients around the country.

A cause for grave concern

Given the number of private companies and care providers operating in this sector, it is difficult to get a clear picture of the precise numbers of people with disabilities caught up in the weather emergency – or to get an accurate picture of their experiences. This is surely a cause for grave concern.

I contacted the NECC at the Office for Emergency Planning in relation to this issue and it made a number of interesting points on the issue. First of all, my point of contact wanted to make it very clear that during an emergency, natural or man-made, the assets of the state – such as Civil Defence or Defence Forces personnel and vehicles – would be made available to carers or care providers who needed to get to a client in extremis.

This is irrespective of whether those carers were employed by statutory bodies such as the HSE or non-statutory, charitable or commercial care providers. In researching this piece, it is clear to me that not all carers or care providers – particularly with clients vulnerable to severe weather events – are aware of this support.

Similarly, in researching this article, it is clear to me that it would be a very good idea if the HSE and those organisations contracted to provide HSE-funded care and assistance hours were to compile a simple database of persons with disabilities living in the community. The best estimate I could reach at time of writing this article is that there are approximately 2,000 such persons living in our communities.

Supporting them properly at a time of crisis is a problem that should be relatively easy to address. The Defence Forces alone deployed almost 2,000 personnel and over 500 vehicles during the crisis to assist members of the public. In other words, the NECC is ready, willing and able to support our disabled citizens during times of crisis.

Clear communication the next stop

What is needed is clear communication on this issue. In reviewing this weather event, all of the relevant stakeholders involved in providing care and assisted living services to persons with disabilities should formalise links and standing operating procedures with state actors such as the Civil Defence and Defence Forces at times of national emergency.

After all, such emergencies – particularly weather emergencies – are predicted to occur with increasing frequency. Hand in hand with that, the numbers of persons with disabilities living independently in our communities is also expected to rise.

So, in future, when Ministers urge citizens to look in on their elderly neighbours during times of crisis, they should also, automatically, call upon us all to look out for our fellow citizens living with disabilities.

Nobody should have to spend 36 hours alone in a bed without a warm drink or a hot meal – least of all our disabled brothers and sisters.

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