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The Camp Fire wildfire in Northern California’s Butte County burned 20,000 acres in 14 hours when it began on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. By Saturday of that week, it had quickly charred 100,000 acres and left complete devastation in its tracks. By the time federal officials declared a public health emergency in the state on Nov. 13, local responders had already been providing aid to citizens affected by the disaster for nearly a week. Community preparedness was absolutely critical.

In scenarios such as this, ORAU works to support preparedness at all levels, from local to state to national, and has seen especially effective results when preparedness happens at the community level. For decades, ORAU has engaged state and local public health departments across the United States to develop tools that focus on a whole-community approach to emergency preparedness. The approach requires public health, health care, emergency medical services and emergency management working together to provide the right care at the right time.

Together with our customers, ORAU has established and is continually refining some key best practices for community preparedness to ensure effective emergency and disaster response.

Expanding medical surge capacity

Health care systems can quickly become overwhelmed with a surge of patients seeking care during disasters. Having a plan to deal with this is essential. ORAU partnered with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) in 2018 to expand medical surge capacity throughout Nebraska. This work includes identifying untapped resources in the community, enhancing training, creating plans and procedures for a tiered-care model and building upon proven approaches for improving availability of specialty care. ORAU experts previously worked in close partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to deliver community preparedness trainings to Public Health Emergency Preparedness grantees, and this experience positioned them to assist Nebraska in enhancing their statewide emergency preparedness.

Addressing needs of at-risk populations

Certain populations have special needs during emergencies. This could include people with chronic medical conditions, those with disabilities who may need evacuation assistance or those with language barriers who may not be able to understand the communicated messages. Preparedness efforts include special planning for these populations at risk whose needs may not be met by standard emergency resources.

In collaboration with the Arkansas Department of Health, Preparedness and Emergency Response Branch, and Arkansas State University Regional Center for Disaster Preparedness Education, ORAU supported the development of a series of five workshops in 2018, focused on emergency operations planning for populations at risk and increasing community resilience. ORAU conducted evaluations of individual workshops and all five collectively. Goals of the workshops were threefold:

  1. discuss the relationship of at-risk population preparedness to community resilience;
  2. utilize the C-MIST (communication, maintaining health, independence, services, safety, and security, and transportation) Framework to facilitate emergency operations plans and
  3. facilitate communication between at-risk populations and emergency planners. Reports and workshop improvement plans compliant with the Federal Emergency Management Association Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program were provided.
By implementing the recommended improvements, future workshops will further enhance the ability of communities to meet the needs of at-risk populations during an emergency.

Communicating for better situational awareness

ORAU worked with CDC in 2018 to transition previously developed, bidirectional text messaging protocols into a mobile app named StopAnthrax™. StopAnthrax was designed to gather data on adverse symptoms experienced by people who had been dispensed medical countermeasures (MCMs) following a public health emergency. Originally intended to be deployed following an anthrax incident, the app was designed to encourage adherence to the prescribed MCM regimen and provide vital health education in an effort to prevent the development of anthrax disease. The bidirectional messaging capability was included to provide CDC and its partners with real-time data during a response, increasing situational awareness, improving disaster response and improving outcomes for impacted communities. The app currently is being assessed for the viability of expanding it to address all hazards.

Sharing success stories of best practices

For more than a decade, ORAU has worked with CDC’s Emergency Management, Radiation, and Chemical Branch to develop radiation emergency preparedness products for state and local public health professionals and clinicians. During 2018, ORAU created a series of videos to communicate how radiation emergency preparedness has advanced at the community level and offer lessons learned for other state and local public health professionals. Using Georgia, New Jersey and Tennessee as examples, ORAU staff developed the videos illustrating local use of the products and CDC’s technical resources in health physics. The videos promote 1) awareness of the types and availability of radiation emergency preparedness tools and staff resources from CDC and 2) the positive impact of the partners’ investment of time, energy and focus in successfully furthering the nation’s ability to respond to a catastrophic radiological or nuclear emergency. CDC has requested that ORAU create additional videos during 2019 to showcase local radiation emergency preparedness efforts in California and Mississippi.

Through these projects and decades of extensive work with agencies at all levels of the preparedness spectrum, ORAU has established best practices and developed the ability to approach preparedness planning from a holistic viewpoint to improve resilience in times of disaster.

Contact us

For information about ORAU’s health communication, preparedness and response needs, contact Marcus Weseman, M.P.A., vice president and senior associate director, Health Communication programs, at 865.576.3420 or marcus.weseman@orau.org.