By Kathleen Ohlson - July 29, 2020
Notifying residents about a public health emergency. Evacuating them before a wildfire or a hurricane strikes. Initiating rescue efforts to a flooded neighborhood. Providing comfort to the community after an active assailant incident. Safeguarding community members is one of many priorities for emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders, public health personnel and local government officials. It’s essential for these stakeholders to have the tools to communicate effectively with residents, as well as with each other.
But one of the biggest challenges is identifying everyone in a community, especially those who will need help and what actions emergency managers, 9-1-1 teams, first responders and public health officials will need to take. States and local officials don’t always know where these residents live, or how many individuals there are. Having this information will allow emergency management and public safety and health agencies better prepare these community members for an emergency, while they understand what resources they will need to allocate.
So who is considered to be at risk? The definition varies depending upon certain criteria.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHS) states an at-risk individual is someone with “access and functional needs (temporary or permanent) that may interfere with their ability to access or receive medical care before, during or after a disaster or public health emergency.” The agency defines at-risk individuals as children, older adults, pregnant women and individuals experiencing homelessness or have chronic health conditions.
Individuals with access and functional needs may include seniors and people with physical, sensory, behavioral, mental health, intellectual, developmental and cognitive disabilities, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They may also have limited English language proficiency, and access to transportation and/or financial resources to prepare for, respond to and recover from an emergency.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines an individual in a vulnerable population as someone who requires constant supervision, has difficulty communicating and accessing medical care, and may need help maintaining independence or accessing transportation.
Once these residents are identified, how will these residents know what’s going on? What happens if there isn’t enough information collected and known about them? How will emergency personnel reach out to those who need help?
Once they have identified who may have a high risk during an emergency, what do agencies do with this information? Here are some other questions agencies need to consider:
Agencies would collect this information and place it into a registry. The objective of this kind of registry would ensure the right public safety and health resources are in the right place at the right time. The registry would identify the number of registered residents who require assistance, as well as their locations and needs. It would help key stakeholders prepare for what resources might be needed before an emergency, and send them out when the time came. For example, emergency managers would know where at-risk residents live so they can evacuate them prior to flooding.
Some agencies have created their own databases so individuals with access and functional needs and other chronic conditions can self-identify and share their information. But the database is oftentimes stored locally and can’t be shared across jurisdictions or even across agencies, meaning that the data goes completely unused or can get stale quickly. Another challenge is the curation and maintenance of the database falls to agency personnel, which is time-consuming on top of the tasks they already have.
Other agencies use paper registries, requiring dedicated resources from public safety agencies to develop, collect and store data at the actual physical location. But there are some issues with paper registries too. Information may quickly get outdated. A person with additional needs may not be able to complete the registration form independently, lessening the odds they will participate.
Knowing who is living in your community and who is at high risk will help all stakeholders understand who might need additional resources and what specific messaging needs to be shared with these residents. Having this information will also help you to build trust within these communities.
So how can you know who might require additional assistance before and after severe weather strikes? Or who may need to receive specific messaging as a health crisis evolves? How do you gain trust?
An online emergency preparedness registry, which is part of a mass notification platform, will allow emergency managers, public health officials and emergency personnel to enhance their response when an adverse event occurs. Individuals would share their specific needs, enabling key stakeholders to understand what assistance they require and communicate faster with them during an event. The registry would provide:
The mass notification platform itself will also allow stakeholders to immediately alert at-risk residents and other members of your community through multiple modes of communication at all stages of an emergency. Departments and agencies would also be able to communicate internally and externally, so they’ll have the most current information to respond to these events.
Kathleen Ohlson is Rave Mobile Safety’s Content Marketing Manager, writing about public safety and K–12 topics. When she’s not researching or banging away at her keyboard, Kathleen enjoys going to concerts and “playing” general manager for her favorite teams, the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Bruins.
Most states have rapid response units tasked with responding to community outbreaks of COVID-19 and minimizing the...