Public Health –Seattle & King County has developed a new strategy for ensuring that our most vulnerable populations are protected and assisted in emergencies. The new strategy recognizes that there are many people who cannot be successfully reached by ‘conventional’ methods of communication. Not surprisingly, the strategy is built around creating relationships of trust with communities and having community members help define the best ways to communicate.

The impetus for this new focus came in 2006, when six people died and many more were sickened when they used charcoal or gas and kerosene heaters to heat their homes after their electricity failed in the 2006 windstorm and remained off for several days. The result was an epidemic of carbon monoxide poisoning. The victims came from communities where there were many limited English speakers. Warnings in English, whether in newspapers or on television and radio, were not effective. After the tragedies began, ads in multiple languages were immediately launched, but too late to help the initial victims.

Since then, Public Health has created a comprehensive strategy to prevent such tragedies in the future. Agencies and staff are being trained in cross-cultural competence. Faith leaders are being engaged to open up new channels of communication. Materials are being developed under the guidance of community members, messages are being tested for effectiveness, and ethnic media are being brought in as communication channels. As of this summer, 264 agencies, 502 individuals, and 126 faith organizations have been enlisted as partners in the Community Communication Network (CCN).

Now that the basic network has been formed, Public Health is doing additional outreach to help build community resilience and strengthen connections. They have sponsored a Vulnerable Populations Disaster Planning Conference to work on capacity building, transportation, and notification and warning methods. A Somali Health Board has been identified as a mechanism to test and disseminate emergency messages and to work on preparedness and other issues in that community, and may be a model for other communities to follow.

When the next disaster strikes, we will be much better prepared to ensure that all of our populations are protected and supported. And the initiatives that have fostered this effort will pay further dividends in other public health endeavors by building the connections that can effectively link communities into the public health network.

Preparedness is all about creating trusted relationships. People must know that there is someone they can depend on for truthful, reliable, and important information, and that this information will be delivered in a form that can be comprehended and implemented in the community. That is a basic social justice principle for emergency preparedness, and Public Health has taken a great step in the right direction by focusing on this important strategy.