A mobile phone emergency alert shows a June 2022 tornado warning from the national weather service
Last week's storms were sudden, and many were caught off guard by storm alerts. These alerts are an important way of staying informed during severe weather. Credit: (Graphic/The Beacon)

When the weather turns dangerous, it can be difficult for people to find shelter in time or stay up to date on alerts. For individuals with disabilities, and those whose primary language is not English, staying safe during storms can be even more stressful. 

Colin Olenick, legislative liaison for the Self Advocate Coalition of Kansas, advocates for people with disabilities in a variety of areas, including emergency preparedness. 

Olenick uses a wheelchair, and he says he is fortunate not to have faced a dangerous situation in severe weather. When he becomes aware of a tornado warning, he seeks shelter in his house’s windowless laundry room. His cellphone receives local weather alerts, but he says he has improvements in mind that could help protect people with disabilities.

“If you have an electric wheelchair, have spare batteries for it, and maybe there could be some type of funding to get that stuff covered,” Olenick said.

He said he’d also like to see new houses built with more room to maneuver in a wheelchair, and designated spaces for emergencies, like safe rooms. 

Olenick also advised people with disabilities to make sure their local fire department or county’s emergency services are aware of their disability.

Overland Park Fire Department spokesman Jason Rhodes said Overland Park has no program in place to check on people with disabilities during storms. 

“During severe weather, those are peak call times, so there’s no way we’d be able to check on everyone,” Rhodes said. 

However, Rhodes suggested calling the fire department or county emergency services in advance to let them know about “premise information.”

“Sometimes people will call in and say, ‘I just want you to know that I have oxygen tanks at my house, and I just want you to be aware of that, in the case of an emergency,’” Rhodes said. “That would be something that would be attached to their address in our dispatch system.”

Disability and emergency preparedness

For staying safe during severe weather, the Federal Emergency Management Agency makes several recommendations for those with disabilities. As always, make sure emergency alerts are turned on, or keep a NOAA weather radio on hand. 

Disability and emergency preparedness recommendations:

  • Talk to your doctor about creating an emergency supply of medication.
  • Store extra batteries for wheelchairs, hearing aids or other assistive technology.
  • Wear medical alert tags or bracelets.
  • Keep copies of insurance and Medicare cards.
  • Have contact information for your doctor readily available, in case of an emergency.

Source: Federal Emergency Management Agency

How to receive severe weather alerts

During last week’s severe storms, alerts were sent out to Kansas City area residents — but some say those alerts came too late. In any sudden storm like last week’s, it can be difficult for local emergency management systems to issue timely or entirely accurate alerts. 

The marketplace has begun responding to the need. 

Steve Birdsall founded the company Capsol in 2013. It provides emergency alerts for a variety of customers and is based in Olathe, Kansas. Birdsall said the kind of products his company develops can be an alternative or addition to government alert systems.

“We look for threats and once we receive a threat, we can do things such as sending out an emergency alert on our proprietary mobile app, activate speakers inside of a building and play a text-to-speech message, we can send out LED text displays and computer pop-ups,” Birdsall said. 

Local government notification systems like NotifyJoCo and the system used by Kansas City, Missouri, are available for residents to sign up for alerts, and were used to notify users of last week’s storm. 

Birdsall says Capsol’s app, Instant Mobile Alerting, does not collect user information such as cellphone numbers or addresses, but still communicates local alerts.

“In an emergency, we can receive messages from NOAA and automatically send it out,” Birdsall said. “People struggle with getting their message out because they have low subscription rates, and part of the challenge is people don’t want to give away their personal information.”

Weather alerts in other languages

For non-English speakers, receiving accurate and timely weather alerts can also be difficult

Claire Canaan, assistant director of community preparedness in Johnson County, said the emergency management division is looking at expanding the languages NotifyJoCo uses. It currently only sends alerts in English.

“If people have their phones or emails somehow set up to translate automatically, there is that option,” Canaan said. “As far as sending a message out in English and then doing the same in other languages, we don’t have that yet, but that’s something we’ve been having discussions about, since three to four weeks ago.”

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Abby Shepherd is a reporting intern for The Kansas City Beacon. She is from Olathe, Kansas, and is a rising senior at the University of Kansas.