Emergency Preparedness and Evacuation Planning

It’s September and we’re in the thick of fire season here in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California. We spend Monday’s show talking about emergency preparedness, evacuation planning, and preparing for Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, which are another common occurrence this time of year. We focus on the disability community here in the foothills, but this conversation is relevant to people and communities nationwide. We discuss how our community can stay prepared and stay safe before, during, and after emergencies.

We’re joined by three guests with first-hand knowledge of emergency planning. Brian Snyder should be a familiar voice to many listeners of Disability Rap as he was our Disability Community Advocate here at FREED and often co-hosted Disability Rap with Ana Acton. He is now FREED’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and runs our program supporting people with disabilities and older adults to prepare for evacuations and PSPS events.

Yinnon Hiller is the Emergency Preparedness Specialist at FREED and he supports Brian by providing equipment and resources to people with disabilities throughout FREED’s catchment area and beyond. When he is not working for FREED, Yinnon works closely with the Left Coalition, providing mutual aid here in Nevada County.

And we’re joined by Brian Terhorst, the current KVMR Board President and the former General Manager of KVMR. He is also the host and producer of Harmony Ridge, which airs on KVMR alternate Wednesdays from noon to 2 p.m.. Brian lives with a rare neuromuscular disease called Late Onset Pompe Disease that requires him to use a power wheelchair and non-invasive ventilator. Brian is a FREED consumer and is one of many community members with disabilities we support through PSPS events.


CARL SIGMOND, HOST: From KVMR Nevada City and in partnership with FREED, welcome to Disability Rap. I’m Carl Sigmond with Carly Pacheco. 

It’s September and we’re in the thick of fire season here in the foothills. We saw some evacuations due to the Bennett Fire on August 25. Fortunately, that fire was quickly contained, and no structures were reported damaged. But at least for me, it showed how close a fire can come to downtown Grass Valley and how much all of us need to be prepared for fire and evacuations in this area. 

CARLY PACHECO, HOST: And that’s what we’re going to focus on today here on Disability Rap: emergency preparedness, evacuation planning, and preparing for Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS) events, which are another common occurrence this time of year. We’re going to focus on the disability community here in the foothills and on how our community can stay prepared and stay safe. 

SIGMOND: We’re joined by three guests with first-hand knowledge of emergency planning. Brian Snyder should be a familiar voice to many of our listeners. Brian was our Disability Community Advocate here at FREED and often co-hosted Disability Rap with Ana Acton. He is now FREED’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator and runs our program supporting people with disabilities and older adults to prepare for evacuations and PSPS events. 

PACHECO: Yinnon Hiller is also here with us. He joined FREED more recently as our Emergency Preparedness Specialist and he supports Brian with providing equipment and resources all over Nevada, Placer, El Dorado and Yuba Counties, as well as elsewhere. And when he isn’t working for FREED, he works closely with the Left Coalition, providing mutual aid here in Nevada County. 

And we’re also joined today by Brian Terhorst, who is another familiar voice here on KVMR. Brian is the current KVMR Board President and the former General Manager of KVMR. He’s also the host and producer of Harmony Ridge, which airs on KVMR alternate Wednesdays from noon to 2 p.m.. Brian lives with a rare neuromuscular disease – called Late Onset Pompe Disease – that requires him to use a power wheelchair and a non-invasive ventilator. Brian’s a FREED consumer and has been using a FREED-provided lithium battery to support his life support equipment during the planned power shutoffs. 

We welcome you all to Disability Rap. Brian Snyder, I want to begin with you. You were our Disability Community Advocate here at FREED, and then you became our Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. So you’ve really built this whole program we have now supporting people with disabilities to prepare for disasters and PSPS events. To begin, can you just lay out what support FREED offers people with disabilities in this area? 

BRIAN SNYDER: Yes, of course. So, what we do is basically provide medical power solutions or backup medical power solutions for life-sustaining medical devices and durable medical equipment. So that includes backup batteries, hotel accommodations, gas for generators and transportation. And so, what we try to do is meet the consumers’ needs in any way we can. And – you know – we stick with the independent living model of consumer driven choices. 

Ana Acton started out – you know – being very proactive and trying to get things off the ground because I think she foresaw that this was going to be a need in the future, especially with climate change and the adverse effects thereof. And then we’re dealing with it now. We’re seeing – you know – fires that are more intense, and then the effects of the smoke on people’s health. For instance, a lot of people are – you know – because of the smoke, it’s making their asthma worse. And because of Covid, people are using oxygen concentrators and nebulizers. So, we’re seeing all of these various different kinds of crises come together in an intersectional way. But we’ve all worked together to adapt and try to become a resilient community. 

SIGMOND: Thank you, Brian. Brian Terhorst, I want to bring you in here. Can you tell us a bit about your story?  

BRIAN TERHORST: So, I live with a rare neuromuscular disease. It’s called Late Onset Pompe Disease. Pompe Disease is a degenerative muscle disease, and I won’t go into the science technicalities of it. But basically, I started experiencing muscle weakness when I was a little kid, and the progression was just really slow over my lifetime. I’ve been a wheelchair user – power wheelchair user – for, it’s like 18 years, 17 or 18 years. And after my diaphragm weakness really set in, I’ve been using a non-invasive ventilator. Well initially, I used it just at night, but I’ve been dependent on a ventilator 24/7 for about eight years. 

So power wheelchair and ventilator are rechargeable battery driven components that sustain my life. And when the power goes out, you can imagine it gets a little bit tense. Fortunately, I was [in] one of the first [rounds] of people to benefit from the lithium battery loaning program through FREED. And those first couple of power shutoffs were long. They lasted three or four days, and that is just about the lifespan of the fully charged lithium battery for the equipment that I use. So literally, it was a lifesaver. 

PACHECO: Thanks, Brian. And Yinnon, I want to also just think through some of the work that you’re doing. A lot of what you’re doing right now is delivering batteries to people about as quickly as we can get them in. What does that bring? What are – sort of – some of the commonalities and stories that you see as you’re out interacting with folks all over?  

YINNON HILLER: People are scared. They have a lot of anxiety. If you depend on electricity for your life supporting medical equipment, you’re at the mercy of PG&E and the weather. And what happens… They last long. They’re bound to be back-to-back. So that means it’s going to be more and more difficult to manage them. And just having those batteries allows people to plan. It relieves a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety. And I hear that all the time. 

SIGMOND: Thank you, Yinnon. Brian Snyder, I want to loop back to you. You have more of a finger on statewide efforts. What are you seeing statewide in terms of disaster preparedness for our disabled community? 

SNYDER: There is a great deal of mobilization. And a lot of independent living centers are doing exactly what FREED is doing, which is trying to meet people’s needs during disasters, because we’re dealing with a simultaneity of issues. For instance, last week we had a wildfire that would have been catastrophic if it had went through Grass Valley. And so, looking at that, plus Covid – you know – providing personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, etc.. So, we’re trying to deal with all of these issues at once and it’s very challenging.  

But the beautiful thing about it is seeing all these various independent living centers throughout the state – you know – talk about it and try to make plans and discuss how to mitigate these issues and work together to do it. And it’s really beautiful in so many ways because we’re all reaching out to each other, trying to assess – like – what do you need? How can we be of assistance? If you don’t have any batteries, can we get you batteries? So, there’s a lot of – basically – mutual aid type of work, which Yinnon does on his own time as well. So that’s kind of converging – it’s kind of seeing that – you know – a lot of needs are not being met through normal channels, whether it be state or federal. And so, we’re having to step in and try to mitigate these issues and meet people’s needs. And that is essentially what independent living centers have been doing from the very beginning. 

One of our greatest challenges that we have, especially within our community in Nevada County, is transportation during emergencies. And so, this is something that we haven’t been able to get a really decent handle on, except the county is working on it. They have some solutions. But it also really makes me think about this – and this is something that Ana and I would discuss and Carly, as well – is that – you know – because of the way our culture is, it’s very individualistic. It’s very consumer-driven in the sense of – you know – consumption of the market. So, people are isolated, which is kind of by design, because if your people are buying their own homes and buying their own appliances, there’s more profit to be made. So, it’s kind of by design and because of that, people are so isolated. And with economic inequality, it’s even worse, because now people don’t have the financial resources to get the things that they need, especially during disasters. So, what we try to do is try to mitigate that and try to come up with plans, grassroots plans basically to overcome these issues. 

TERHORST: If I could weigh in just a little bit on what Brian just said, and this is Brian Terhorst. One of the things… So, we recently had the Bennett fire, which is the fire Brian just referred to. And I live on Bennett Street and was evacuated, and that kind of triggered – you know… I mean, we are on this life experience learning curve right now and we’ve come to… I’ve come to associate the power outages with this – you know – hunker down – you know – prepare for being without energy for a few days. And I’ve had to set up that adaptive strategy.  

But being evacuated recently triggered that epiphany [that] power shutoffs are about fire danger. And I had this realization that – you know – very starkly, that those power shut-offs can and often do come hand-in-hand with an evacuation. And then that triggers this whole strategy of now what do I do? You know – I have a lithium battery that will keep my equipment going, but I can’t move that lithium battery and get it out in my van. I mean, I’d need a crew to help with that. So anyway… It’s just… We’re still in the early learning phase of adapting to life with wildfires and evacuations and power shutoffs, and that new reality has unique and challenging implications for people living with disabilities and who use life support equipment. And, I mean, I could speak to wheelchairs and ventilators, but there are – you know – people who have refrigerated medications or dialysis machines. And you know – there’s a whole array of unique needs out there that require not just backup power but the ability to mobilize with backup power. And we’re still figuring that out. So it is a partnership for sure. 

HILLER: Can I jump in and say that another component is that, especially for people with disabilities, the emergency doesn’t end when the emergency ends for everybody. If it’s a fire, the power can stay out for days after and the emergency lasts quite a while for a lot of people. It doesn’t end necessarily when you’re allowed to go back to your home. And that’s another thing that needs to be thought of and kind of planned ahead like anything else. 

SNYDER: Yeah – you know – the other thing… Thank you for mentioning that, Yinnon. Right now… I spoke with our partners up in the Paradise area. That’s the Disability Action Center. And they are trying to work with consumers there that experienced the Paradise fire or the Camp fire, and they still do not have power to this date. Many, many people are camping on their properties without power. Can you believe that? I mean, that’s insane, right? I mean, that was what, 2017? So, like Yinnon said, the emergency doesn’t end. 

PACHECO: I really appreciate this discussion. I wonder if we could talk just a little bit more… I think, sometimes planning for evacuation is sometimes one of the more challenging situations for folks with disabilities, particularly if they don’t have transportation that they can access on their own. And I don’t know if any of you have ideas or strategies or want to weigh in about – you know – what people can do to prepare when there is an evacuation event or a potential evacuation event in their area. 

SNYDER: Right now for Nevada County in particular, the best strategy that we can come up with is creating a plan for personal resiliency, in the sense of: How can I create a network of support with either friends, family members, neighbors, religious organization – any people from there? So the idea is to create a network of resiliency. So, create a plan with your neighbors and friends to evacuate. That should be the first and foremost. I know that’s difficult, especially since we live in a very individualistic way and also very isolated, especially in this rural community. It’s difficult because many people have been living isolated without having any contact with family or friends for many, many years.  

But we’re living in a time where we can’t do that anymore. We can’t remain isolated. We have to start making connections with people, even if it’s painful or uncomfortable, because if we don’t, our survival is at risk. And I say our – I mean the people with disabilities, our community. So we have to start talking to people and saying: I have needs and if you’re willing to assist me, I’m willing to assist you. There are multiple ways of approaching that, and that could be either writing a letter to your neighbor and saying: Hey, I live next door to you. I have disabilities. You know – we don’t have to have long conversations, but I would – if there’s an emergency – I’d be grateful to be able to call you for assistance and vice versa. So that’s the most important thing. And that’s one of the four steps of personal emergency preparedness. This first step is finding five trusted allies that you can contact in an emergency. They can contact you and everybody can contact each other so everybody knows where everybody is and everybody is supporting each other. So that’s really the first step. 

Now as a backup – and I’m speaking for Nevada County – the other option is that when you receive a notice or even a warning that you need to evacuate and even sooner is better, is to call 2-1-1 and tell them you need assistance with evacuation. They will then contact the county transit department and they will work towards getting you out. That is a viable resource. However, we also need to think in terms of what if they are not able to do it for whatever reason, either because the disaster has divided the county and transportation is difficult, or it’s just too dangerous. So, that is one resource you can use. But I think it’s best to have multiple redundancies in transportation in place because if you’re only relying on one then if that one fails, you’re out of luck and it’s too late.  

So, the most important thing is to evacuate early and fast. So even if like… For instance, during the last… Well, even the Bennett fire, I was thinking of evacuating, even though I wasn’t that close to it, just because it takes so long for me to get out as a person that is blind. And I have a guide dog and I have a lot of prep that I need to do. And it’s really important to think that way because… I don’t know if anybody has read The Washington Post article from 2017 or 18, I believe, but it said Nevada City would be the next Paradise. And what they were speaking of is the fact that the roads… These evacuate evacuation routes would get so jammed up that people would get stuck. So. it’s really important to get out early and fast, because it’s better to be inconvenienced than to be too late. 

TERHORST: I’d also like to just follow up on that. As Brian mentioned and as we’re all reminded, you’ll have your five people. But when you’re a person with a disability and unique needs, you have to educate those people that are in your five, because when an evacuation happens, the trajectory for a person in a wheelchair or with life support equipment is not an off the rack, “Okay, I’m hitting the road. I’ll catch up with you in Auburn.” You have to have an inner circle that is familiar and – for want of a better word – trained to help you get out. 

In the Bennett fire that broke out a half mile from my apartment, I was successfully out of my apartment in 20 minutes. And that involved my sister getting her car, driving over here and helping me load my last-minute stuff that I can’t load myself and that I can’t have pre-packed, like battery chargers and transfer equipment and that kind of stuff. But my sister is so familiar with my routine that when it came time for me to move, we knew exactly what we had to do to get me out of here. And that is not a level of detail that you want to leave waiting.  

There’s a reason people have fire drills. My family is proactive – not just me but my people – you know – we have been through the routines and practiced them. So when one actually came up, we knew how to act on it and get out of here. And I would not want to try to figure that out in crisis. It’s better to do that in a quiet moment when you have time to think things through. And people… Everybody needs to think that way, but people with disabilities need to give extra thoughts, so your support system knows what you need when the moment hits. 

SNYDER: Thank you for mentioning that, Brian. Yeah, that is so critical, because I have so many people that call about – whether it be for needing a battery, or making a plan – but right in the middle of wildfire season. That’s not the time to plan. The time to plan is from January through May. That’s the time when it’s least likely for an event to happen. That is the most important time to plan because you can be relaxed. Because when one is under stress and fear and anger, you can’t think properly. You don’t think with reason. All you can feel is your emotions and you don’t want to operate from that place. You want to operate from a place of reason and the only way to do that is if you’re relaxed. 

Now, I will say: the wildfire season is getting longer and the public safety power shutoff season is getting longer. Last year, it went from – like – basically, August all the way through January. So we have to be prepared for any type of crisis at any time, because the more prepared we are, the more relaxed we can be during the moment. The other thing I’d like to reiterate is it’s also good to practice actually evacuating, because that will tell you where the gaps are, where the problems are, where the things that slow you down are.  

TERHORST: And I would say here, for the people who are tuned in and listening to this program, as we’re having this conversation, we’re in a momentary lull between incidents, and if you didn’t prepare between January and May, right now while an event isn’t erupting on our doorsteps, it’s not a bad time to be practicing and talking with your people. Don’t wait till January to start working through it. And when you do your practice evacuations, involve your animals and get out the way you would have to get out if it were a real event. Because like Brian says, once you’ve been through it a few times, you remember the next time. Okay, we’ve got to do this. Or, I could have prepared that item and had it in my car ahead of time. So, if the evacuation comes, it’s not your first rodeo.  

SNYDER: If you have a life-sustaining medical device or durable medical equipment and you need to power those devices during public safety power shut off events, it’s really important to fill out an application to apply so we can determine eligibility. And there’s two ways you can do it. One is you can go directly to the disability disaster access and resources website and complete the application there. And you can just Google that: disability disaster access and resources. Or you can call our office at 530-477-3333. 

PACHECO: That was Brian Snyder, FREED’s Emergency Preparedness Coordinator. We also heard from FREED’s Yinnon Hiller and KVMR Board President Brian Terhorst. And that does it for this show, which was produced and edited by Carl Sigmond. Special thanks to Courtney Williams for her support. To listen to this show again, go to FREED.org/disabilityrap or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Carly Pacheco with Carl Sigmond for another edition of Disability Rap.