CalOES’s Vance Taylor on Emergency Preparedness
As we enter fire season here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, we spend today’s show with L. Vance Taylor, who leads the Office of Access and Functional Needs in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. We invited Vance on the show to talk about how the increasing risk of wildfire and other natural disasters here in California is impacting people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. We’ll also hear what CalOES is doing to support our community before, during, and after emergencies.
Vance Taylor is a San Francisco Bay Area native. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child and uses a power wheelchair. He has worked in Washington, D.C. as an advisor for two different members of Congress, has directed security policy at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and has been a principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He is currently based in Rancho Cordova, California.
CARLY PACHECO, HOST: From KVMR and in partnership with FREED, this is Disability Rap.
L. VANCE TAYLOR: I’ve been at the shelter before, where I had somebody hold my hand, and tell me what it was like to evacuate to the shelter, and watch her home burn down with her wheelchair inside, and then show up and not have what she needed to be safe.
PACHECO: Today, a conversation with L. Vance Taylor, the chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
TAYLOR: And it’s difficult to look someone in the eyes and tell them that because we didn’t take the steps on the front end, that they have to just wait until we can figure things out.
PACHECO: That’s all coming up right here on Disability Rap. Stay tuned.
CARL SIGMOND, HOST: Welcome to Disability Rap, I’m Carl Sigmond with Carly Pacheco.
PACHECO: As we enter fire season here in the Sierra Nevada foothills, we spend today’s show with L. Vance Taylor, who leads the office of Access and Functional needs in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. We invited Vance on the show to talk about how the increasing risk of wildfire and other natural disasters here in California is impacting people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs. We’ll also hear what CAL OES is doing to support our community before, during, and after emergencies.
Vance Taylor is a San Francisco Bay Area native. He was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy as a child and uses a power wheelchair. He’s worked in Washington D.C. as an advisor for two different members of congress, has directed security policy at the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, and has been a principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He’s currently based in Rancho Cordova, California.
SIGMOND: Vance Taylor, welcome back to Disability Rap. You have a very broad definition of access and functional needs, or AFN. First, for people who may not be familiar with the term, could you just define what you mean by access and functional needs? And then, briefly describe the unique challenges those of us with AFN face during disasters.
TAYLOR: Great question about access and functional needs, and it’s important because I think a few things happen. One is that individuals within the community don’t always see themselves within that term. And the other thing that happens is… I think people outside of the community – emergency managers, for example – view that term very narrowly only to mean disability. And so, I think defining it on the outset is just a good way to make sure that we’re all on the same page [and] we’re all really clear about what we’re talking about.
So, when we talk about access and functional needs, yes, we are talking about individuals with physical, developmental, or intellectual disabilities, but we’re also talking about people with chronic illness or injuries. We’re talking about older adults, children, individuals who are transportation disadvantaged, people in institutionalized settings, people who are facing socioeconomic barriers. We’re talking about women in late stages of pregnancy and individuals for whom English is not their native language. So, when you think of each of those individual populations, they’re all underneath the umbrella of access and functional needs.
And when you think about a state like California… We’ve got almost 40 million people. The individual components – individual groups and communities – that make up the access and functional needs population account for collectively millions of Californians. A very big chunk actually of our state. And the reason why that matters is because one of the things that we have found is that, without exception, individuals with access and functional needs are disproportionately impacted by disasters, right? You see increased loss of life. You see increased suffering, and increased hardship before, during, and after disasters. And it’s always specifically within that access and functional needs population.
SIGMOND: Thank you. I wonder if your broad definition and framing of the AFN population help you, not only leverage resources that might not otherwise be available, but like you said, help emergency managers and emergency response personnel realize how big a scope we are actually talking about.
TAYLOR: Yeah, I think it’s interesting because a lot of times it’s been thought of within emergency management as sort of a one-off. You know, you hear terms like “special” and “unique.” And the reality is that when I’m talking to emergency managers and we’re having these discussions, it doesn’t take long before every single person there realizes, either, “Hey, I’m someone with an access or functional need,” right, which they may not have known. But hey, they use hearing aids. Or hey, they’re older, or they don’t get around as well. Or before they start to connect the dots to people in their lives who they love, right: their family members, their friends, their colleagues, who are individuals with access and functional needs.
And so it’s a change of paradigm, if you will, that emergency managers have gone from seeing this as the rare individual within a community that might need specialized transportation resources, or might need, you know, communication assistance, or that might need wrap-around services at a shelter, to really recognizing that when we say a whole community that means we’re all a part of it. And that this isn’t a onesie-twosie type of thing, but rather upwards of forty percent of our population. And that change I think has really helped the emergency manager change its posture to being a much more inclusive and now integrated area or space.
And that’s huge because it didn’t start that way, right? I mean initially what you had was, you know, emergency managers – these are people who choose to stay when there’s a disaster, who choose to spend their lives trying to help people be safe and secure, at a time when others are figuring out just how to evacuate. And so you have these great, well-intentioned individuals who are trying to do good things, but the reality is that most of them didn’t have lived experience in the access and functional needs world.
And so, there was a lot of: hey, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they would plan together but they did it in isolation. They would have a bunch of emergency managers sit around, and say, “Hey, how do we get life-saving information out to the community?” And somebody would say, “Well, press conference, right?” Great idea, but nobody there stopped to consider the fact that not everybody speaks the same language we speak. Or, hey, you know what? When we deliver this information, it’s going to literally fall on some deaf ears, right? Nobody stopped to consider that, when you point at an evacuation map and say, “go here for safety,” if you’re blind or low vision, that means nothing to you, right? You can’t process that. And so, there was no ASL interpretation. There were no alternate formats. There wasn’t a lot of language translation. And so, this life-saving information about what’s coming our way, what’s here, and where do you go, what action do you take – information that’s so key to have as early as possible – didn’t go to the entire community.
So a lot of what we’re about now, of course, is making sure that we’re planning together. Emergency managers now are recognizing that the way we used to do it – when it was just us in a room – that doesn’t work. But we have to be able to have perspective. Then, I always share with people that I use a power wheelchair and I have for most of my life. And so, I always say that, when I go into a room, that I’m scanning that room for access, right? I don’t care if it’s a birthday party or a work meeting. I’m checking: are there stairs or a ramp? Are the passageways cluttered, you know? Can I get around? But if you walk into that same room, chances are you’re not looking for any of those things, right? And that’s okay. It’s not that one is good and one is bad. It just means we have a different lived experience, and based on that live experience, we have a different perspective.
So, to take a step back here, when you’ve got emergency managers trying to figure out how do we plan, prepare, respond, and recover from disasters, what you need are many different perspectives and lived experiences looking at that same issue, because we can be looking at the same thing and seeing it very differently. Now that we’re doing a better job of that, we’re finding that the outcomes to these disasters are improving across the board. And that, of course, reiterates not just the value, but how worthwhile it is to do this.
PACHECO: Such good points, Vance, from every angle. People with actual deaf ears – I like that. You’ve been with CAL OES for seven years now, which is, you know, doesn’t seem like that long, but when you think about what’s happened related to disasters in the last seven years, there’s been quite a bit of action. What conversations are you having now that you weren’t having back when you started?
TAYLOR: So, you’ve gotta remember that seven years at CAL OES, it’s like dog years, okay? It’s different. Time moves differently at OES. We’ve had… I think in my seven years here, we’ve had – I think – 14 of the 20 worst disasters in California state history. You know, it’s good and bad, right? I mean, obviously, you don’t want bad things to happen, but when they do, we learn, right? We get better. And there’s been tremendous progress in the last seven years, and it’s really been on multiple fronts. And one is that access and functional needs wasn’t something that was on top of people’s minds. I mean, if I didn’t go in the room and preach and teach, and bang the drums, so to speak, it didn’t come up. What we’ve actually achieved now is a cultural shift, where access and functional needs is essentially the first thing that comes up, right?
We’re talking now – I think nationally – about things like social justice and equity. Those values that have been embedded at CAL OES have now weaved within the DNA, the fabric of our actual agency in a way that has enabled California to literally lead the nation, and by default the world, in inclusive planning. The way that independent living centers now, and community-based organizations, and advocacy groups are now ingrained within our operations, right? When we’ve got shelters, we want whole community stakeholders to come to the shelter and help us with the assessments. We want them to go cot by cot, asking individuals if their needs are being met. We want them to help us look at the facility and pick which is going to be the best spot to go to. We want to be able to lean on them for durable medical equipment, for technical assistance, to leverage their loan closets. We want them to help us in the way that we set up plans, and when we look at our after-action reports, we want to know from the community perspective what worked and what didn’t.
We’ve set up a California statewide access and functional needs advisory committee. We’ve integrated access and functional needs representatives within every one of our standardized emergency management system workgroups. We’ve facilitated stakeholder input into every single one of our major plans. Yeah, we are making strides in this area, because what we see is that when we don’t, there is suffering. And I’ve been at the shelter before, where I had somebody hold my hand, and tell me what it was like to evacuate to the shelter and watch her home burn down with her wheelchair inside, and then show up and not have what she needed to be safe and healthy and independent when she arrived. And it’s difficult to look someone in the eyes, and tell them that, because we didn’t take the steps on the front end, that they have to just wait until we can figure things out. We have felt that in a very personal way, and that’s changed I think who we are as an agency in a very positive way. We I think have adopted sort of a “never again” type of attitude, right? That we’re the fifth largest economy in the world, and we’re going to utilize those resources to help all Californians.
SIGMOND: Thank you, Vance. In California and in this country more broadly over the past decade, the increasing wildfire, the increasing occurrence of other natural disasters, and unfortunately, it looks like this trend will just keep going. So, I’m wondering where you see emergency management in five years, in ten years, in California. What will we be doing then that we are not doing now? And how do we get there?
TAYLOR: You know, I agree with your assessment. I think it’s a fair assessment that what we’re seeing isn’t just an uptick in the number of disasters that we’re facing. It seems to be an exponential increase. And it’s not just the number of disasters, it’s the scope, and scale, and devastation associated with those disasters. And, you know, climate change is right at the heart of that, right? It’s an existential threat, and we hear a lot about: well, what should we do to prevent climate change? But the reality is, we’re dealing with it, right? As an emergency manager, I can tell you right now that we’re dealing with the effects of climate change on a daily basis now. So when you asked me to look into the Vance Taylor crystal ball, five years down the road, what are we doing? I think the answer comes back is more. Probably, we’re doing more.
Where I think we’re going to have to really do more is in the way that we empower local communities to further their preparedness and to build their resilience, right? It’s that recognition that we simply cannot be in all places at the same time. But if we can help empower communities to be able to be better prepared and to meet their own needs, then there won’t be that same reliance on CAL OES to have to save the day, right? There will be a lighter lift on that side, so we can do more good for more people.
A big, big part of that preparedness and that resilience effort has to be to put money and resources into the hands of community-based organizations. So, the Governor funded the LISTOS program – $50 million. This is a yearly effort, and this isn’t going to go away. This is money that’s not going to emergency management agencies in each county, but rather to the community-based organizations that serve individuals within each county.
And we’re not saying: take this money and we want you to spend it on X, Y, and Z. What we’re doing is saying: we want you to identify what are your needs. Because what you need in Nevada County is different than what Orange County needs. It’s different than what Trinity County needs. And so, rather than give you money and say, use it all the same way, we’re asking the community-based organizations to tell us what the communities you serve need. And then we fund them. And I think that’s going to be the X factor, right? Is for communities to be able to be better empowered. Which is not to say they’re on their own, right? But it is to say that each of us has a certain capacity and ability, and we each need to live up to whatever that is.
PACHECO: Vance, one of the things that you’ve talked about in the past is how we could use technology in a different way, specifically artificial intelligence to predict and respond to emergencies. Could you describe a little bit more about what that might look like and where we are with that?
TAYLOR: I think if you’re somebody – particularly somebody with an access or functional – need that technology is our friend. And we love that, you know, Alexa tells us when there’s a package at the door. We love that we can go into a room and the lights can dim or brighten, that we can have smart TVs. We haven’t quite seen the pivot for those technologies to be utilized in order to assist people before, during, and after disasters, right?
So yeah, I’ve said, you know, if Alexa can tell me there’s a package at the door, she should be able to tell me when there’s an evacuation order, right? My smart TV should turn on to an emergency press conference. My lights in the smart home should flash on and off when there’s a disaster. My phone, right – if I’m using Google Maps or Waze – should automatically populate the evacuation route so that I know where I’m going to go. And some progress is being made there but it’s not enough. I think that they’ll get there.
We’re doing a lot better with mapping. We’re doing a lot better with those type of technologies. CAL OES has two new planes that they go up and they get a bird’s eye view using different types of radar that map out exactly where fires are and predict where they’re going, so that we can be smarter about where we attack, and how we work to extinguish those flames.
So, there’s a lot that can be done. But I would love to see Google, or Microsoft, or Facebook, Amazon, whoever… You know, Elon Musk, if you’re listening, you know, getting to Mars is great, but if you could find a way to send Teslas autonomously into neighborhoods to evacuate people with access and functional needs, that would be pretty spectacular, right? And I’ll high-five you on Mars, but I’d like to be alive to do that.
SIGMOND: Thank you, Vance. As we all know, disaster response is a collective problem, and it is an individual problem, especially for those of us with access and functional needs. You kind of touched on this in your last question, but can you talk about how both individual preparation, individual preparedness, and institutional preparedness are needed and how they compliment, and support, and multiply each other.
TAYLOR: Yeah, I mean, you raise a great point, because there’s two kind to two sides of that preparedness coin, right? Then here you talk about the institutional side, yeah, there’s a lot that CAL OES and other agencies and groups organizations are doing. There’s more we need to be doing, and we’ve got to keep going down that road.
But on the other side, there’s this thing called individual preparedness. And, you know, sometimes there’s that sense of: hey, I push the button and the food comes to my house, right? I order from Amazon and if it takes more than one day to get here, you know, that’s a problem for me. We’re very used to, kind of, being able to get the resources that we want and need right away.
And so, we expect that emergency management’s gonna be the same way. But if I gotta get out during a disaster that, you know, I call 9-1-1 or I hit the button and somebody’s going to come pick me up. And the reality is, it’s just not the case. When there’s a large-scale evacuation, the amount of accessible resources to get people out are very limited. It takes time. In a disaster you don’t have a lot of time. And so, you’ve got to have an understanding that if I don’t plan, [if] I don’t prepare now, then when the balloon goes up, it’s going to be a problem.
I think the other thing is that we’re not doing a real great job of getting water to the end of the row. And what I mean is we set up a lot of programs – we do a lot of work – but we don’t always get the message to the individual, right? We don’t always say, “Hey Carl, you need to have a go bag,” right? You gotta be ready to grab your bag and leave. What do you need in that bag, right? What do you need? Durable medical equipment? Is there assistive technology? Are there charger cords? Is there food? Medicine? Documents? Information about medical professionals? People in your support network, right? We don’t spend a lot of time talking about these things in detail with the individual.
Nobody’s ever asked, “Hey Vance, do you have a personal evacuation plan?” I talk about personal evacuation plans all the time. Do I have one? You know, I mean, finally, I put something together. But we don’t always sit down with individuals and empower them by talking about these things, right? I mean, I can’t get out of my house, let alone out of town, without somebody helping me out. So, we have to think: okay, well, who can I call, right? And it can’t just be one person, because that person is probably not gonna be available all the time. And it’s funny: I used to say: go four people deep. Ana changed it to, like: your disaster high fives, or something like that.
PACHECO: Find Your Five.
TAYLOR: Find Your Five, which I was like: man, that’s so much better. For me, that’s my wife, right? She – when I’m on good terms – she’s going to help me out. But my mom lives pretty close. She’s on my list. We had nine months together in the womb. Those were good times, Carl. So, she’s probably gonna help. I’ve got a friend in the neighborhood. A colleague at work. I’ve got a friend at church, right? So, these are people that I’ve said, hey, if it all goes down, your phone might ring, and here’s what I’m going to need.
And so, I can’t expect that any one of them is going to be available all the time, but yeah, I can expect that one of the five is going to be available. But that’s that important side of the preparedness coin we don’t spend enough time talking about, and that is: what can we do as individuals to prepare. And then, I think if the answer is, “hey, I’m good to go,” okay, well then we have a responsibility to make sure that the people that we have influence with and that we interact with are also empowered, right? We can’t say, well, one and done [and] I’m good, right? We have to be able to empower other people also.
PACHECO: That was L. Vance Taylor, the Chief of the Office of Access and Functional Needs in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
And that does it for this show. Disability Rap is produced and edited by Carl Sigmond. Courtney Williams is our production assistant. To listen to this show again, go to FREED.org/disabilityrap or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re brought to you by KVMR in partnership with FREED, and we’re distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. I’m Carly Pacheco for another edition of Disability Rap.