Preparing the way for functional and access needs in general population shelters

In Brief

An Arizona partnership between public health and independent living advocates embarked on a project to better integrate people with functional needs into general population shelters during an emergency. The state health department purchased durable and adaptive equipment to support up to 1,000 people in shelters, and is currently training healthcare organizations to anticipate and meet the needs of people with functional disabilities during a disaster.


Emergency shelters vary by the types of services they offer, with some providing only the basics of food, shelter, and access to medical care. In 2010, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released state and local guidelines for specific services that people with functional needs may require in general population shelters. Recommendations include furnishing communication assistance, accessible sleeping accommodations, and equipment to facilitate tasks of daily living.

Specific issues

  • People with functional needs will require additional support services when using a general population shelter during an emergency.
  • Populations most in need of support services include people with physical, sensory, mental health, cognitive, and/or intellectual disabilities; women in the late stages of pregnancy; elderly people; and people requiring bariatric equipment.
  • People with functional needs who are unable to use a general population shelter may be separated from their family or other sources of support during an emergency.

The practice

The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council identified specific needs for people with disabilities staying in a general population shelter during an emergency and purchased equipment to meet those needs.

In 2011, a partnership between ADHS and the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council initiated a project to make general population shelters accessible to people with disabilities and other physical health needs. The goal was to ensure that during an emergency, people with functional needs would not have to be separated from their families or taken to hospitals.

One of the project's initial actions was to purchase durable medical equipment and adaptive equipment for use in shelters, including medical field cots with IV poles and bariatric transport chairs/beds for extremely obese people. Planners estimate that these purchases can help them serve approximately 1,000 people with functional disabilities in general population shelters.

The project involves ongoing planning between ADHS and the Independent Living Council. An additional aspect includes providing equipment and training for healthcare organizations, so providers understand the variety of functional needs patients might experience when support systems are unavailable during emergencies.

What made this practice possible?

  • An ongoing partnership between ADHS and the Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council
  • Funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services Hospital Preparedness Program


  • Relieving healthcare system burden. Readying shelters for the needs of people with functional disabilities keeps people with fairly simple needs out of hospitals, allowing healthcare providers to focus their attention on people with acute healthcare concerns.
  • Fulfilling federal guidelines. By implementing this project, Arizona is one of the first western states to comprehensively execute the FEMA functional and access needs recommendations.

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