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Warning the Public in a Language They Understand

The April/May/June 2012 print issue of PA TIMES published a series of articles on the topic of Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Recovery. The piece below is part  of a Student Symposia from that issue.

Destiny Davidson

Alerting the public to an existing or impending emergency can be quite an undertaking even under the best of circumstances. Traditional methods of emergency alerts include sirens, radio and television broadcasts, reverse 911 and door-to-door notifications. More recently, with the increase of cell phone ownership, text and email-based emergency messaging have become popular.

However, while everyone seems to be on board with the need to disseminate information quickly, a significant portion of the population is overlooked. With the exception of a few large, metropolitan areas, the vast majority of emergency alerts are delivered only in English. Although English may still be the official language of the United States, the presence of large segments of the population where English is the second language is on the rise. Getting the word out in a language that can be understood by all communities poses a daunting challenge and one that emergency practitioners must embrace.

Although English may still be the official language of the United States, the presence of large segments of the population where English is the second language is on the rise.

Faced with decreasing budgets and shrinking personnel, agencies may want to simply avoid the obvious need to develop protocol for the delivery of emergency messages to non-English speaking segments of the community. However, regardless of the discipline, emergency practitioners have a duty to identify these groups who are not currently being served.

Creative yet cost-effective ways must be devised so that these groups can be notified in a language they can understand, the nature of the emergency situation, and the applicable protective action recommendations (PARs) they can take. Yet, it is important to remember, when working with ethnic minorities, especially those with limited English proficiency, the messenger can be of equal if not greater importance than the message.

Minority community leaders can be an excellent resource and can help an agency tap into communication trees already in existence. These leaders can be political, religious, from nonprofit agencies, or even from unofficial neighborhood organizations. Trusted figures within a community have a significant amount of influence when delivering information. They are the unofficial experts on the best delivery mechanisms for their specific ethnic group, which could range from phone calls, face-to-face notifications, email, text messaging or media outlets. They are also the experts on the behavioral nuances within their particular community and can better understand the types of questions and concerns to anticipate.

After identifying these individuals, building credibility as a source for emergency warnings by establishing a working relationship well in advance of an emergency is also important. This can best be accomplished by developing hazard awareness programs that serve to educate community partners of hazards specific to the community while at the same time, establishing expertise and trustworthiness. This is vital information that leaders can offer their communities about potential hazards and appropriate response actions. While the development of these human resources does take time and effort, it can generally be accomplished using existing personnel, meeting rooms and minimal training resources. In turn, relationships built within the community during the process cannot be overestimated.

Ethnic media channels play an equally vital role in reaching minority communities in times of emergency. As with minority community leaders, these relationships should be established ahead of time. Trust and cooperation must be forged well ahead so that politics obstacles do not interfere with quick information dissemination. According to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Public Health Workbook–To Define, Locate, and Reach Special, Vulnerable, and At-risk Populations in an Emergency–as of 2005, 29 million ethnic adults preferred ethnic media to mainstream television, radio or newspapers.

For that same time period, ethnic media was reaching 25 percent of the entire U.S. population on a regular basis. However, ethnic radio and television stations may not be manned 24/7 and therefore, may be unavailable to deliver translated emergency communications and informational updates outside of live broadcast regular hours.

The open source workbook provided by the CDC, and noted above, delivers an excellent framework for developing a Community Outreach Information Network (COIN) to target vulnerable populations including those with limited English proficiency and can be utilized across multiple disciplines within emergency management. This particular resource can be found at: www.bt.cdc.gov.

Additional free resources include translated public information materials that are available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which offers a variety of information on their website on topics such as disaster preparedness that is translated into more than 20 languages. For those not proficient in English, finding this type of information can be difficult. Thus, emergency managers should capture this information and make it more readily available to minority communities in advance of an emergency.

Agencies can also take advantage of free social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that allow them to set up their own pre-designed communication trees. Community leaders can assist with posting translated information on community preparedness, hazard specific information and PARs. This information can be updated quickly and subscribers receive alerts for further information. Other low-cost mass communication platforms such as Nixle, available at www.Nixle.com, allow agencies the ability to send emergency texts and emails to subscribers within a targeted geographical radius. The community leaders and ethnic media outlets who have agreed to be spokespersons for their communities can be registered to receive these messages and can translate and forward them to their communities.

Regardless of the conduit, message distortion must be minimized by developing emergency message templates in advance to ensure uniformity in content as well as aiding translation. Remember, the message cannot simply be forwarded in its original (English) format.

In addition, agencies also must involve those individuals who have agreed to assist with information dissemination in practical exercises to further develop the communication skills of the community leaders, to test the emergency notification process, and to help drive home the important role they play in the overall emergency operations plan of their community.

Communities are becoming more diverse and emergency communications cannot be limited to English alone. Locally, proactive efforts must be made to identify minority communities and develop reliable and cost-effective methods of information dissemination. Emergency practitioners should actively work toward developing and maintaining partnerships with minority community leaders and ethnic media outlets so that when an emergency happens, and it will, everyone within the community has an equal chance at protecting themselves and their families.

Destiny Davidson is a graduate student in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University and is a lieutenant with the Cobb County Criminal Investigations Unit. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.


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