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How to Include Diverse, Vulnerable Populations in Emergency Preparedness

All-inclusive preparedness can be challenging for governments, but examples of resources and successful programs can help.

by / April 11, 2011
Photo courtesy of

The United States is home to more than 308 million people, comprising many cultures and subpopulations — such as diverse and vulnerable groups of people — who may interpret messages differently or distrust the government. Perhaps no disaster has illustrated the need for emergency planning and preparedness with these communities to the extent that

Hurricane Katrina did. Almost six years ago, the nation watched as more than 1,800 perished, 80 percent of New Orleans flooded and nearly 100,000 citizens remained in the water-ravaged city rather than evacuating.

A study of 1,089 people affected by the hurricane in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama found that 28 percent of those who didn’t evacuate couldn’t leave because of limited means, according to the nonprofit Fritz Institute. Of those who couldn’t evacuate for this reason, 71 percent said they had nowhere else to go, 37 percent didn’t have a car, and 36 percent couldn’t leave their homes without assistance. What’s more, 84 percent of those with limited means had household incomes of less than $50,000; 58 percent were African-American; 66 percent were women; 57 percent said their highest level of education was a high school diploma or less; and 32 percent had a physical disability.

When preparing residents for disasters, officials must think not only about the different cultures within their community, but also about the vulnerable populations — the disabled, very young, elderly, homeless and people who speak limited or no English. Emergency managers and public health officials have wrestled with developing relationships with these groups for decades, and it’s still a challenge for many.

Luckily there are resources for officials to use; examples of successful initiatives can assist state and local agencies with their plans, helping them to reach as many people as possible in ways that create positive relationships and changes.

The following three examples demonstrate how governments have worked with diverse and vulnerable populations and the organizations that serve them.

Philadelphia Reaches Out

One of the easiest and possibly most effective ways to educate and connect with diverse and vulnerable populations is to partner with organizations that already interact with them. This was one way the Philadelphia Department of Public Health communicated with these populations — officials reached out to human service agencies, and community- and faith-based organizations to take advantage of what it believed was an existing information structure, said Dr. Esther Chernak, who led the department’s Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program from 1999 to 2008. “We knew they would be trusted partners in the community to the people who had special needs,” she said. “During an emergency, they would look to the trusted partners for assistance.”

The department’s goal was to build relationships with community organizations before there was an emergency. The Public Health Department created a database of the different community organizations that included information like their size and phone number. “Even though they might not necessarily have a mission directly related to public health or emergency management functions, we wanted to get a sense of who was out there working with the most vulnerable communities in our city,” said Chernak, who is now the director of the Center of Public Health Readiness and Communication at the Drexel University School of Public Health.

Photo: A FEMA representative provides a Fargo, N.D., resident information translated into Arabic in June 2009. Photo courtesy of Samir Valeja/FEMA.

Then the department developed a plan to reach out to those organizations, informing them of what they could to do to help their clients — or the population they serve during an emergency. Chernak said a one- to two-hour briefing was developed that discussed the types of public health emergencies that could happen in Philadelphia and how they might affect community organizations. Department representatives explained how the organizations could support their clients’ needs if an emergency occurred. Representatives also explained that the most important thing the organizations could do during and after an emergency is to stay open. The briefing also included a basic tutorial of the city’s emergency response plan.

From Chernak’s experience with including community organizations in emergency planning to reach vulnerable and diverse populations, she identified recommendations for other agencies to consider before embarking on their own project.

  • Work with large organizations — like the American Red Cross, United Way and Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster — because they have a good roster of which agencies in the community are doing what.
  • Conduct a needs assessment of who in the community has functional needs; this helps prioritize who to work with first.
  • Ensure that outreach efforts include bidirectional communication. “When you meet with folks who work in communities, the message is more than, ‘Here’s what the government plans to do during an emergency,’” Chernak said, “but it’s a two-way conversation in which the community agencies have the ability to provide government planners with what they believe the most pressing needs are or will be in their community during an emergency.”
  • Understand that planning and relationship building will take a long time and require patience.

Jewish Community Alert System

The Jewish community in Boston is an example of a well prepared society. Created in 2006 as a program of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies organization, the Greater Boston Jewish Emergency Management System (JEMS) keeps the more than 200 Jewish agencies — from synagogues to preschools to social service agencies — updated about possible emergencies and public safety concerns. Working closely with the Boston Police Department, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) and local communities — while tracking information from FEMA, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Secure Community Network — JEMS Director Elyse Hyman e-mails safety and emergency notifications to about 250 community leaders.

“A lot of our issues and themes revolve around Israel, which is a very emotional topic, and we just had an incident where suspicious people were giving out information in front of synagogues,” she said. “So I sent a notice that you need to be a little bit more aware and make sure people notice what’s going on around them, and if there’s an emergency or something looks
suspicious, call 911 immediately.”

From local issues to emergencies that garner national attention, Hyman works with the
police to address issues that could possibly affect the Jewish community. For example, in 2010 when there were reports of printer cartridges packed with explosives directed at Jewish entities in Chicago, Hyman called her contacts at BRIC to find out if there were any threats to Boston’s Jewish community. “We have representatives from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security assigned to our office,” said Boston Police Department Detective Bill Dickinson. “We get the information quickly and can assure her that she can put out something saying there’s no nexus to Boston and everybody can relax a little.”

JEMS not only provides an avenue for Hyman to reach community leaders, but it also allows BRIC to reach them consistently and quickly, Dickinson said.

When a major incident happens — whether locally, nationally or worldwide — JEMS follows protocols to determine what action to take. When the system was created, representatives from 10 organizations created a checklist that they go through on a conference call to decide how to handle the threat or problem.

JEMS’ relationship with the Boston Police Department also increases public safety. Hyman
will bring possible public safety issues to Dickinson’s attention. For example, last year someone called a Jewish organization and spoke only in Arabic. “We weren’t sure if it was a threat or somebody got the wrong number and it just happened to come to us,” she said. The call was taped and sent to Dickinson to determine what the person said. “It’s a really nice relationship that we’ve built: a trusting relationship,” she said.

Being honest with each other and establishing a relationship before an emergency happens is key, Dickinson said. “A lot of what we do is diffuse situations, things of concern to the community.”

Mentoring Community Organizations

Simply telling an individual or an organization that they must prepare because something terrible will eventually happen doesn’t usually elicit the response officials hope for. So in 2009, Lane County, Ore., public health officials took a different approach to working with community organizations: They mentored them through workshops and one-on-one sessions to develop action plans.

Selene Jaramillo, a community health analyst and assistant preparedness coordinator for the county’s Public Health Department, said 36 agencies that provided a service to at least one homeless person and lacked the resources for emergency planning were recruited to participate.

Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Emergency Management from 2008 to 2017.

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