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Study: Highrises Pose Risk to Unprepared Older Residents

 

In December 2013, an ice storm knocked out Toronto's electricity and stranded thousands in cold, dark apartments. Since then, the Toronto Hydro Independent Review panel has recommended that the province require better back-up power supplies in high-rise buildings.

Are residents now prepared to protect themselves in an emergency?

No, a new study finds.

Researchers led by Marita Kloseck from Western University (London, Ontario, Canada), found that residents expect high-rise building managers or the municipality to take care of all their needs in an emergency.

In addition, researchers found older adults had a false sense of security that could jeopardize their safety in a disaster.

The study appeared online in the Journal of Housing for the Elderly on June 9, 2014.

The authors say their findings reinforce the need for public education to deal with different types of emergencies and the importance of including older adults in emergency preparedness.

Neighbours helping neighbours

The research team reviewed a sample of 20 Canadian federal, provincial and municipal emergency planning guidelines and found that only one, the Ontario Emergency Preparedness Guide for People with Disabilities/Special Needs (published by the Government of Ontario in 2007), focused on older adults.

The team used a community development approach to involve older residents in the emergency planning process. Researchers recruited 12 volunteers from among 2,500 residents of 13 well-maintained high-rise apartment rentals in the Cherryhill retirement community in London, Ontario, Canada.

The volunteers were given two emergency preparedness training sessions, each lasting three hours. The training sessions consisted of four education modules:

1. Emergencies and you
2. What is emergency preparedness
3. Emergency preparedness and vulnerability, and
4. Emergency preparedness and resiliency.

They also attended a session that offered tips on public speaking.

Building awareness

Following their training, volunteer leaders held focus groups to raise awareness of emergency preparedness among people in the Cherryhill retirement community and adjacent area.

The focus groups were held in the local public library. One group included individuals aged 65 to 79, and another for those aged 80 and older. In total, the groups attracted 33 participants: 27 women and six men.

Emergency scenario

At each session, the participants were asked what they thought would happen if they were without water and electricity for a period of 72 hours or longer in the cold of winter.

The conversation was guided by the following four questions:

1. What information have you received about emergency planning?

2. Have you ever sought out information about what to do in an emergency?

3. Have you heard about an emergency survival kit?

4. Have you ever seen the Ontario Emergency Planning Guide for People with Disabilities/ Special Needs before today?

Here's what the study found:

  • Most participants had never considered the need for emergency planning.
  • Older residents expect that apartment building managers or the municipality will take care of all of their needs in an emergency situation, although none knew exactly how or what support would be available.
  • Participants felt comfortable remaining in their apartment to wait out an emergency, but they were unsure how to stay warm, heat meals or access medication.
  • Older adults did not know how they would evacuate their building during an emergency. If the elevators were not working, many would be unable to descend the stairs.
  • Participants were concerned about how to care for their pets, particularly cats, in an emergency situation.

Wake-up call

So what needs to be done?

Kloseck and colleagues point to the urgent need for better public messaging for older adults and targeted emergency management plans for frailer older individuals living in the community.

The study's recommendations focused on two groups: municipalities and building management.

Recommendations for municipalities:

The report recommended local emergency management officers work with apartment owners/managers:

  • to ensure a detailed emergency preparedness plan is in place
  • to identify responsibilities of the city, apartment managers and older residents during an emergency situation
  • to address how emergency information is communicated, and
  • to ensure a plan is in place to identify and evacuate residents who cannot evacuate themselves.

The local emergency management officer should also work with pharmacies to ensure medications are available in an emergency.

Recommendations for building management:

The report recommended that building managers:

  • distribute emergency preparedness plans to tenants with rental agreements (updated with lease renewals); tenants should sign the plan to confirm they have read the information
  • residents should have one-page summary of emergency procedures attached to apartment door, and
  • tenants should be made aware of how long a generator will provide back-up power and what a generator will and will not power.