Falmouth police, firefighters reach out to residents with special needs

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FALMOUTH — Anyone would be frightened during a house fire, but for children with autism or people with other disabilities, the situation can produce added terror when they are confronted by a strange police officer or firefighter.

After attending an autism conference last winter, Falmouth resident Wendi O’Donovan, whose 13-year-old son Ryan is autistic, was prompted to ask if the town’s emergency services personnel had received training on how to interact effectively with autistic residents and those with Alzheimer’s or other communication or memory impairments.

“A lot of autistic children have huge communication deficits,” O’Donovan said. “For me, if we had a fire in my house, would the fireman know you can’t just call (Ryan’s) name.”

O’Donovan e-mailed Town Manager Nathan Poore about her concerns.

“It was just a simple sentence – what does Falmouth do? – and (Poore) just got everybody together,” she said.

With Poore, Police Chief Edward Tolan, police Lt. John Kilbride and Fire/EMS Chief Howard Rice on board, O’Donovan said they lined up two nights of training with Yarmouth.

“They wanted to take if further and wanted to create an awareness with
EMS workers and firefighters,” she said. “It’s been a great process.”

The result is the Police and Fire departments’ first open house for residents with special needs and requests. Scheduled for Saturday, June 13, from 9-11 a.m., the gathering at the Police Department on Woods Road is specifically geared to give those community members with special needs a chance to become more familiar with police officers and firefighters and to see police cruisers and fire trucks up close, Kilbride said.

At the same time, it gives law enforcement the opportunity to take photographs of the individuals and compile profiles that can be sent to officers when responding to a fire or police call, he said.

“We’re hoping the more information we can obtain from the family the more it will help us serve them and make kids more comfortable with emergency personnel,” Kilbride said.

While parents of children with disabilities have been contacted, Kilbride said he hopes those who have a family member with Alzheimer’s or other dementia will also attend.

“If we had a picture, that would help us find them when they’re not able to remember who they are or where they live,” he said.

Special-education teachers in Falmouth have matched homework assignments to the emergency services theme, and next year, it will be incorporated into the special needs curriculum, O’Donovan said.

“I just can’t stress enough how cooperative this has been,” she said. “I hope other communities can do the same thing.”

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or proberts@theforecaster.net.