Our plans for successfully managing vulnerable populations should be as detailed as community infrastructure resiliency programs, but unfortunately, limited resources complicate this initiative.
President Trump has officially declared November as “Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month”, in step with a long-time push from municipalities and communities all over the country for more infrastructure resiliency programs. While this initiative demonstrates our nation's progress towards strengthening America’s infrastructure assets, a big gap still exists.
What constitutes as infrastructure assets exactly? Infrastructure assets are high-cost investments that are vital to a country, municipality or business organization's growth and development. Examples of infrastructure assets include transportation, communication, sewage, water and electric systems.
As part of community preparedness efforts, most emergency managers maintain detailed inventories of critical infrastructure, their vulnerabilities, state of repair, and hotspots around town that are more easily damaged (e.g. the roads that always flood or ice over in the winter season); however, the same amount of critical information is rarely available about the community’s most valuable assets: its residents.
Some form of resident information can typically be recovered on the internet; however, the data is collected by various entities, maintained in different systems, and not rapidly accessible during an emergency event. When it matters most, emergency management officials need to be aware of who resides and works in their communities, where they are located, and what kind of assistance they will require should a disaster strike.
The Challenges with Managing Substantial Vulnerable Populations
Upon using a traditional registry solution, the act of obtaining critical information about local residents during a major event such as a hurricane, blizzard, or terrorist attack can be especially challenging. What's more, acquiring a substantial list of contacts and securely maintaining the critical information is often the challenge that goes unprecedented. Below, we have identified the four main roadblocks that can hinder the contact registration process, including limited resources, interoperability, data privacy, and public response.
Collecting, updating and maintaining data in a registry for a large group of participants, let alone vulnerable residents, is a daunting task. Each new participant in the system adds a burden on the administrators who must verify the data, often re-enter it from paper forms, and somehow implement a process to keep the data current. With limited resources, administrators can only maintain data on those that identify themselves as being vulnerable, and lose the opportunity to plan around uncategorized vulnerable populations such as pet owners who refuse to leave their pets behind during a disaster because of the lack of available shelter resources. Effective and rapid evacuation and sheltering of individuals with pets is an ongoing issue for emergency managers as they plan and track their disaster management strategies.
When disaster strikes, emergency managers must frantically gather data from various localized, non-normalized online systems, making collaboration extremely cumbersome and ineffectual. Trying to estimate resource requirements (e.g. oxygen tank needs) in an affected region that spans multiple jurisdictions and agencies complicates the ability to collect, normalize definitions, and de-duplicate data. The lack of keeping track of vulnerable populations during a disaster was a huge issue during the October of 2017 wildfires in Northern California. With the average casualty age of 79, the act of successfully evacuating thousands of elderly residents proved insufficient. In one situation, a retirement community scrambled at the last minute to evacuate over 300 of its most vulnerable residents and is now being investigated for failing to follow its evacuation plan. To make matters worse, emergency responders were allegedly not notified to help with the evacuation.
With any system that requires personal information, developing a registry can cause privacy concerns for participants. Agencies incur this burden of responsibility for securely maintaining data provided to them and unfortunately, best practices are often beyond the resources of what agencies can provide. For example, encrypting data, geo-redundant storage facilities with top-tier physical and virtual security, and regular purging processes are not normal capabilities of a county emergency management agency. Ensuring data security is important to maintaining the public’s trust in providing their personal information.
Another challenge with getting vulnerable residents to participate in a Special Needs Registry is the concern of being labeled or singled out. Although the typical Special Needs Registries focus on more traditional definitions (eg. those with mobility limitations and developmental disabilities) there is a clear need to expand the system’s definitions to include the entire community to better protect everyone during emergencies, as well as engage a much broader cross-section of individuals, agencies, and advocacy groups in the public preparedness outreach.
The Town of New Canaan, CT has an innovative approach to Whole Community Preparedness.
Tools and Online Resources for Integrating Vulnerable Populations into Community Infrastructure Resiliency Efforts
Tools and Solutions
There are tools available that can help emergency managers quickly get help to those that need it most during a crisis. For example, the Deputy Director Tom Valdez from Ottawa County, MI said the solution used in Ottawa County, MI to better protect their community during a mass emergency event has been extremely impactful.
When asked about the solution, Valdez responded by saying, "[The solution's] database and interactive maps help our dispatchers easily and rapidly identify, communicate, and proactively assist those who most need our help. Combining infrastructure management program resources with community preparedness plans will help emergency managers to better respond during and after a crisis."
Several resources exist that can help communities develop an all-inclusive community preparedness plan in line with their infrastructure resiliency efforts. FEMA’s concept of Whole Community Preparedness focuses on developing emergency operations plans around the entire community. The CDC also provides some guidance for emergency managers on how to better identify vulnerable populations.