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SAFE Program: bridging the gap between first responders and citizens with disabilities

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Hussein Enaya
  • 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs

In January of this year, the Okaloosa County and Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Offices launched a groundbreaking initiative known as the SAFE Program.

The program aims to enhance communication and cooperation between first responders and individuals with disabilities, ultimately ensuring the safety and well-being of the community.

“We have contacts with special needs families throughout the county, especially in Navarre, and there are a lot of people from Hurlburt Field who live in Navarre,” said Bob Johnson, Santa Rosa County Sheriff. “We have one Air Force family close to my heart: the Nandins. They have three children with autism.”

“Angela Nandin, the spouse of a retired Airman, just came to me with a plan for the safe program and I jumped on it,” recalled Johnson.

A key collaboration within the SAFE Program involves Hurlburt Field's emergency responders partnering with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. This partnership allows Hurlburt housing residents to enroll in the program and ensures that vital information is shared with on-base emergency responders, enabling them to provide more effective assistance.

"We want this program to be nationwide. We are working on getting Cannon Air Force Base – another Air Force Special Operations base in New Mexico, on board,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Allison Black, 1st Special Operations Wing commander, “our goal is to create a network where, when you enter the data about your family member's exceptional needs, it can be accessed on a computer without the need to transfer it from state to state."

The fundamental principle driving the SAFE Program is the commitment of Hurlburt Field to protect and support every member of its Air Commando families. By teaming up with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, this initiative seeks to safeguard the most vulnerable citizens within Okaloosa County.

Statistics have shown that individuals with developmental disabilities are seven times more likely to have contact with police officers and first responders. The SAFE Program specifically caters to those who may not respond as expected during emergencies, including individuals with Alzheimer's, autism, PTSD, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, deafness, and various other conditions. This voluntary and secure program aims to benefit any family with special needs before an emergency arises.

To enroll in the SAFE Program, families can fill out a form available on the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office website. Once the form is received, the dispatchers enter the information into the local communication system, accessible to all first responders, including EMS and Fire.

Hurlburt Field dispatchers also securely receive and utilize this valuable information. As a part of the enrollment process, families are sent complimentary decals that can be placed on the windows of their homes and vehicles, signaling the presence of an individual with special needs to all first responders.

The implementation of the SAFE Program at Hurlburt Field exemplifies a whole community approach, as it involves close collaboration with organizations like Emerald Coast Exceptional Families, Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, and Okaloosa County Schools. By leveraging the expertise and resources of these partners, Hurlburt Field is poised to successfully implement this program and keep families and first responders safe.

Nandin represents Emerald Coast Exceptional Families, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the special needs community, and highlights the importance of equipping first responders to address individuals with special needs during emergency situations amidst a chaotic environment.

First responders at Hurlburt Field are equipped with reflective bags containing various items aimed at bringing calm amidst chaos. These bags include headphones to mitigate sensory issues caused by loud noises, as well as sunglasses, squishy balls, and fidget toys.

Black underscores the importance of the SAFE Program in providing critical data to first responders before a crisis arises. “The SAFE Program is designed to arm our first responders with information before a crisis arises. And part of what we expect our leaders to do is to bring calm to chaos.”

Black extends gratitude to Nandin for championing the SAFE Program and acknowledges the vital partnership with the Santa Rosa and Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Departments. This collaborative effort has generated the necessary momentum to address the needs of the community's exceptional individuals effectively.

The SAFE Program represents a significant milestone in bridging the gap between first responders and citizens with disabilities. Through proactive enrollment and the sharing of critical information, the program ensures that first responders possess the necessary tools and knowledge to respond compassionately and effectively during emergencies.

This community-wide initiative exemplifies the commitment of Hurlburt Field and its partners to the safety, well-being, and inclusivity of all individuals within Okaloosa County.

"Our people are the most invaluable assets," stressed Black.