Sherman Gillums, JR.: Strengthening Disaster Response

Sherman Gillums, Jr. understands that people would rather not think about disasters. Who wants to ruin their day imagining a worst-case scenario that hasn’t yet arrived?

Sherman Gillums“But you’ve got to do it,” he says. “I compare it to life insurance. The worst time to talk about life insurance is right before a loved one is dying. You’ve got to do it when everyone is clear-headed and has time to think through the details. And it’s the same thing with emergency preparedness.”

As Disability Coordinator and Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Gillums is working to not only ensure that FEMA supports people with disabilities in the event of a disaster, but that the community itself is ready. Collaborating with disability organizations and state, local, tribal and territorial partners, Gillums encourages people to be proactive. Pack a go bag. Make a plan with friends and family members. Identify evacuation routes and connect with local emergency management officials. Sign up for mobile alerts to stay apprised about severe weather.

“How do we best prepare people for the worst?” he says. “We do that by empowering people with the information they need to reduce as much uncertainty as possible.”

Gillums’ efforts are informed by his own experience. In 2007 — five years after he sustained a C6-C7 spinal cord injury in a car accident — wildfires came dangerously close to his San Diego home. “I could taste the soot in the air,” he says.

But he was both unprepared and unwilling to evacuate, skeptical that he would get the help he needed at an emergency shelter.

“I was concerned I’d be treated like a burden because of my unique needs and uncommon ways that I achieved independent function,” he says.

Gillums was lucky, but the experience has shaped his approach at FEMA.

“I began to think, ‘How do I think back to that decision point to encourage somebody to make a different decision than I did,’” he says. “That’s the key to my approach for FEMA’s Disability Integration preparedness efforts.”

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Along with extensive outreach, Gillums also incorporates input from people with disabilities into FEMA’s planning, mitigation and response. Community feedback, he says, is critical to improving post-disaster outcomes, from assessing the effectiveness of alert systems to helping FEMA’s on-the-ground disability integration advisors provide local emergency managers with a comprehensive understanding of how to best support individuals in shelters. “The planning process needs to include people with disabilities, so everyone can understand the ways that the system will serve them,” Gillums says.

“So, that no one feels defeated before they even leave home. The idea is to help people prepare and have faith in the system.”

Find emergency preparedness resources at

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