Editor’s note: This week’s blog, by Gabe Kohler, was originally posted on the Fire Adapted New Mexico Learning Network website in May 2022. With their permission, we are pleased to reprint this post – which includes information and links to help enable more organizations and agencies to meet access and functional needs. This winter/spring, FAC Net will be hosting a four-part webinar series covering a variety of topics related to access and functional needs. The series is open to both members and partners, so we encourage anyone interested to register. Check out the event flyer and please comment on this post with any questions.


Access and Functional Needs during Wildfire

For the purposes of this blog post, the phrases “people with disabilities” and “people with access and functional needs” are used interchangeably to refer to a variety of conditions that require special attention during a wildfire.

From the Functional Needs Planning Toolkit by the National Response Network:

“Emergency planners must have the ability to reach everyone in their communities to help them prepare for, respond to and recover from all types of emergencies. This includes community members with access and functional needs. All people in the community need to have accurate and trusted information in order to know what to do and when to do it.”


Infographic with symbols for "Communication," "Maintaining Health," "Independence," Support and Safety," and "Transportation."


Defining Functional Needs

The same Functional Needs Planning Toolkit defines functional needs as:

“Populations whose members may have additional needs before, during, and after an incident in functional areas, including but not limited to: maintaining independence, communication, transportation ,supervision, and medical care. Individuals in need of additional response assistance may include those who have disabilities; who live in institutionalized settings; who are elderly; who are children; who are from diverse cultures; who have limited English proficiency or are non-English speaking; or who are transportation disadvantaged.”

In looking at and assessing risk in emergencies, the individuals most impacted by an emergency have functional needs in the following areas:

  • Communications – relates to the individual’s ability to receive critical warnings and other emergency information, communicate effectively with emergency response personnel, and understand information being communicated so they can act to help themselves. Individuals may require auxiliary aids and services and may need to have information given to them in alternate formats.
  • Maintaining health – many will require continued access to specialized medical equipment, medications, supplies or personal assistance to maintain their health and prevent the decline of medical conditions if they are removed from their daily environments due to a disaster.
  • Independence – relates to support that people may need to remain independent and to take care of themselves like durable medical equipment, communication devices, service animals, and accessible facilities.
  • Safety, Support services and Supervision – some individuals require the support of people (personal care assistants, family, or friends) to cope with the challenges of emergencies; some may lack the cognitive ability to assess emergency situations and react appropriately without support and/or supervision.
  • Transportation – some individuals cannot drive, some need specialized vehicles for transport, and some do not have their own vehicles and rely solely on public transit.


Young girl smiling while wheeling forward in a wheelchair.These functional needs have definite impacts on how people will respond in an emergency. Whole community emergency planning committees need to include people with access and functional needs and representatives from organizations providing services for people with disabilities to truly plan for everyone in the community.


Tools for Working with Functional Needs

This emergency communications board can be used to support communication with individuals that are non-verbal or that do not speak English.

Credit: Spanish version of the Emergency Communication Board, from Temple University Institute on Disabilities. 


The Functional Needs Planning Toolkit provides information needed to incorporate disabilities into our planning for:

  • Notifications and warnings
  • Evacuation
  • Emergency transportation
  • Sheltering
  • Effective communications

To support the continued learning about how to work with functional needs, the national Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network compiled the following resources:


Ready to operationalize these concepts in your work? Already doing this work and have insights to share with your peers? Consider joining us for FAC Net’s Access and Functional Needs webinar series, kicking off February 15th, 2023.