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Breaking Ground 93 - Two Chattanooga Programs Promote the Safety of Individuals with Disabilities

by Ned Andrew Solomon, Director of Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, Council on Developmental Disabilities
a meeting room with a standing firefighter training seven seated firefighters. The trainer is Captain Phillips, and he is describing the SNAP training, which is described in the article.

When Captain Skyler Phillips of the Chattanooga Fire Department became a father of a son on the autism spectrum, he had no idea how his avocation, and his role as a dad, would intersect.

But today he uses his own experiences and learning curve with his child, and his concerns about his son being in the midst of an emergency situation, to train other firefighters about what they need to know if they encounter an individual with autism or other developmental disabilities. SNAP, or the Special Needs Awareness Program, is a First Responder Training Course developed with Lisa Mattheiss of LifeLine, a family support entity in Chattanooga, based on scenarios encountered by families who experience disability.

“This class is not about teaching people how to answer calls,” said Captain Phillips. “This class is about helping first responders make these calls go easy. The whole purpose – and this is what I tell them in my class – is to make the world safer for people like my son and to be better prepared to respond.”

Although Captain Phillips’ primary focus has been his firefighting peers, the ultimate goal of SNAP is to also equip police officers and emergency medical services to respond with the greatest level of support and dignity when they interact with someone living with a disability. The training includes insights about intellectual, sensory, behavioral, physical, medical and communication challenges that might occur in crisis situations involving individuals with disabilities.

The SNAP training teaches attendees how to better understand:

  • Challenges faced by families and how those issues might affect their interactions with first responders
  • Potential responses of someone overwhelmed by sensory stimulation
  • Potential triggers for someone in an emergency situation and ways to avoid those triggers
  • Multiple de-escalation techniques and strategies
  • Ways to identify someone with an invisible disability

SNAP’s goal is to train as many fire departments as possible. Captain Phillips has taught numerous departments himself, representing more than 2,000 individuals, including first responders in neighboring Georgia. His expertise has been requested far and wide. “I can’t possibly teach the 450 departments in the state,” Captain Phillips said. "So we’re going to come up with a train-the-trainer program. That way we can give them access to the PowerPoint and let them teach their own departments.”

There’s another very practical component to the SNAP initiative. Captain Phillips linked up with the Hamilton County 911 system, collaborating with a staff member who also has a son with autism, and who teaches 911 Communicators how to interact with people with autism during a 911 emergency call.

“We developed a process where you can enter your name, address, telephone number, the disability and who in the household has the disability – all that sort of thing gets programmed into the 911 system,” explained Captain Phillips. “Police, firefighters, County Sheriff – we all have the same computer system, so if people have registered, that information pops up on our computers when that address comes up.”

In addition, a first run of 2,000 stickers with the SNAP logo, funded by the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association, were distributed to people in the community to put on their cars and houses. “So that when firefighters, or Emergency Medical Services or the police respond to their house, or if they see that sticker on the back of their car during an accident or whatever, they know that someone with a disability might be inside,” said Captain Phillips.

All of these efforts are meant to make emergency calls easier for emergency personnel, the individuals and families that experience disability, and to better prepare everyone for what could be an intense life or death situation. “We don’t want to get that call,” said Captain Phillips. “We’re afraid that it’s just going to turn into violence, so we just restrain people. We’re so worried about ourselves that we don’t take the time to think about what the real cause might be. So we try to open their eyes by telling them, ‘look, if you just step back and given them some space, you may find that you get a better outcome.’”

Take Me Home

Captain Phillips has also helped another important safety program get up and running in Chattanooga. The free Take Me Home program allows family members and legal guardians to register emergency contact information for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities which first responders can then access in emergency situations. When a vulnerable individual is found wandering alone or has been reported missing, police and other emergency services personnel can search for contact information, a detailed physical description and the individual’s photograph. The program is voluntary and all information is kept confidential.

Take Me Home was initiated with the support of advocates in the Chattanooga autism community, including Roddey Coe of Ooltewah. Roddey is a Governor-appointed member of our Council on Developmental Disabilities and a 2017-18 graduate of the Council's Partners in Policymaking™ Leadership Institute; he has a son with autism. Take Me Home also represents a collaboration between Chattanooga's police and fire departments and the Chattanooga Autism Center.

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Roddey said, "I have friends whose kids have disappeared, and this tool for law enforcement will allow them to see who they're looking for. If officers approach someone on the street who may be unable to communicate because of autism, dementia, Alzheimer's — anything that can take away somebody's ability to speak or tell them where they may be — this will allow them to pull up a picture and take that person home instead of to a jail cell."

The Council is planning to work with Roddey and other stakeholders to explore making this program available in communities across the state.

Chattanooga-area caregivers can enroll family members, friends or clients with disabilities in the Take Me Home database online at https://tmh.chattanooga.gov. For more information, email takemehome@chattanooga.gov.

For more information about SNAP, contact Captain Phillips at skyler.phillips@lifelinefamilies.org . There is no cost for the training.