Over the past eight years, Scott Ellis has trained thousands of New Jersey and Pennsylvania residents—many with disabilities—on how to prepare for emergencies. Although most of them probably thought they’d never need to worry about being affected by a real disaster, that all changed after Hurricane Sandy made landfall last October.
“For many people, Hurricane Sandy was a huge wake-up call and now, more than ever, they realize the importance of being prepared for a major disaster,” says Ellis, who is the emergency preparedness training coordinator for the Progressive Center for Independent Living (PCIL) in Hamilton, New Jersey.
On September 24, Ellis was among three individuals honored by the White House as one of their Champions of Change for Community Preparedness and Resilience. The Champions of Change program was created as an opportunity for the White House to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities. This particular award celebrates “Americans who are preparing communities for disasters and helping them respond and recover.”
Aside from providing preparedness training, Ellis serves as chair of the Mercer Community Organizations Active in Disasters and as a member of the Mercer County Community Emergency Response Team. A quadriplegic, Ellis also works to enhance preparedness within the disability community as Vice Chair of the New Jersey Group for Access & Integration Needs in Emergencies & Disasters (an advisory board to the NJ Office of Emergency Management and the NJ Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness) and as the Access and Functional Needs (AFN) Coordinator for Mercer County—a volunteer position he began only a month before the storm.
Taking all of his experience into account, Ellis sprang into action to help those in need after the storm hit New Jersey last October. “After Hurricane Sandy, I acted more in the support role in terms of getting resources to people and finding equipment for people who lost it during the storm. I also had my AFN duties to take care of at the County,” he said.
During the response phase, Ellis found that not as many people were as prepared as he hoped and that many of the deaths and injuries could have been prevented if they were. Among those who were largely unprepared were oxygen users, and finding vendors to replace their supplies proved challenging. As a result, Ellis worked with Mercer County officials to create oxygen dependent emergency preparedness packets that oxygen suppliers have since been distributing to clients.
“We are trying to get a lot of awareness going for people who use oxygen because there was a problem during Hurricane sandy, so we’ve developed this emergency preparedness packet on how to shelter in place and how to prepare with oxygen with your concentrator, if you have that,” Ellis said.
Prior to the storm, Ellis was also part of a team recruited to evaluate the accessibility of potential shelter sites around New Jersey. Right after the hurricane, he even made a trip to Ocean County to assess a Red Cross shelter. “Sheltering is a big problem in our area, so I’ve been working with (Mercer) County on sheltering issues within Trenton and mostly municipalities. We are visiting all the municipalities to see what they have in place and support them in any way we can,” Ellis said.
Since he was selected as one of the Champions of Change and as one of FEMA’s Individual and Community Preparedness Award winners in 2012, Ellis has gotten more involved in federal preparedness initiatives. “I’m included in some of the government things that are going on now. They have conference calls about different issues in emergency preparedness. They want me to join in with that, which I’m going to do today. So I think it gives us a voice—people with disabilities—a little louder voice, which is good. If we can do something good with that, then I’m all for it.”
Ellis’ passion for the field of emergency management began at a young age, and he ultimately became a fireman in Hightstown, NJ. After a diving accident left him paralyzed, Ellis refused to leave the field and decided to work as a preparedness trainer.
According to a statement made by the White House before the ceremony, “President Obama directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to launch a comprehensive campaign to build and sustain national preparedness among Americans of all backgrounds and ages, moving them from awareness to action. The Champions we will recognize have been leaders in this initiative.”
Norman Smith, a fellow advocate who accepted the award in DC on Ellis’ behalf, said, “Scott exemplifies what emergency preparedness is about. He is personally prepared himself and can readily adapt to changing situations. He can teach, train, and lead because he has experience as a first-responder and as a person with physical disability. Scott is well respected by both communities, and I was honored to represent Scott.”
As for what the future holds now that he has received two of the highest honors in the nation, Ellis is unsure, but he says, “It’s nice to be recognized by the White House for some of the programs that we’ve done.”