Support for Diverse Communities in Emergency Public Information and Warning

When minutes count, the feasibility of having emergency messages immediately translated and disseminated to the correct population is a far reach even for the most resourced, effective organization.  Each step from message development to protective action has its own challenges, and with small staffing and budgets coupled with the limitations that come from existing EPI and warning systems, this can pose a challenge.

Identifying the Community

When developing a plan for meeting the immediate as well as long-term information needs of a community, one has to fully understand not only the raw demographics of a community, but also the cultural morays that exist in communication.  In some areas, with some groups, modifications to strategies used in the majority population may be required in order for the message to get through.  Some communities, especially those who come from backgrounds of extensive political corruption, turmoil, or even violence may not be keen to trust a governmental agency’s message, especially when it involves evacuation.

Things to Consider in Developing A Warning and EPI Strategy

How people understand information is very much tied to their cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds.  Starting with easily available data, such as that from the US Census Bureau, you can begin developing a picture of your community.  Ask questions such as:

  1. What languages are spoken in homes that are other than English?
    • This characteristic is not immediately indicative of an inability to speak English, there may still be some English-language proficiency within a population, especially those who have been established for multiple generations.  Thats where understanding the community outside of the data helps.
  2. How do people in diverse communities seek and receive information?
    • Does this community have a socially-based mechanism of communicating? Do they have their own media? Are they reliant upon English-Speaking household members, neighbors or friends for information?
  3. What are some barriers to communication within communities that may make it hard to reach?  
    • In many places, especially large cities, we are too heavily reliant on technology to fill in information gaps.  TV/Radio/WEA/Text Messaging are all great tools for hitting large swaths of the population, but an over-reliance on these can result in an unequal distribution of this information across the social and demographic spectra.
  4. Who are the people these communities trust for information?
    • Identify advocates from within the community that can easily be called upon to ensure information is provided to specified populations in a way that is trusted.

Develop Strategies to Provide for Communities Ahead of Time

Information in Multiple Languages

In Houston, we’ve worked to ensure that essential information is provided in multiple languages to our diverse community.  In fact, we have an Administrative Policy (AP 2-11) that outlines the process and requires each department to have a language access plan in place.  In Houston, we’ve identified the top 6 languages spoken as English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic and French. All essential information is to be translated into these languages, where feasible.  We have also begun ensuring that much of this information is interpreted into American Sign Language (ASL).  Following the April 2016 flood, we developed a two-page “After the Flood” brochure in each of these languages so that we would easily have access to information for affected residents in these groups.  It includes information on cleaning up flood-affected homes and businesses, accessing FEMA assistance (when available), and consumer protection:

We also reached out through our Department of Neighborhoods to identify community organizations within affected communities who could provide this information to those isolated language groups affected by flooding.

New York’s Warning Model

New York City has done a phenomenal job of getting emergency messages translated and distributed in multiple languages.  Many of their NotifyNYC messages have been pre-translated and refer back to the original message.

So even if you can’t specifically translate each message as it happens, knowing that there will be some basic messages that will stay the same, you can develop the content, pre-stage it, and use it in your alerts.

For the most part, locations (such as addresses, landmarks) will be relatively recognizable in different languages, so specific locations generally do not need to be translated.

Other Best Practices?

Are there other best practices out there?  Leave a comment and let me know.  As we all work towards the same goal; providing timely, effective information to the public when it matters most, sharing strategies will become vital to us.



Alert Systems Aren’t Enough | How France, Norway and the UN are Trying to Tackle the Problem of Warning

Alert Systems Aren’t Enough | How France, Norway and the UN are Trying to Tackle the Problem of Warning


At a recent conference, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) demonstrated the need for effective warning infrastructures and processes to increase community resilience worldwide.

Among the notes, they included:

  • Technological advances in warning systems aren’t enough if people do not have a way to receive them.
  • People are less likely to comply with protective actions if they feel there isn’t sufficient infrastructure to support their activities of daily living (life shelters).
  • Warning theorists have to explain the benefits of developing effective warning systems in plain language.  If not, we risk decision makers, policy makers and the general public being unable to understand the risks v. rewards

UN Launches CREWS (Climate Risk Early Warning System) Initiative

“‘We can have the best warning system in the world, the best forecasts, but if the message doesn’t get through to the person on the ground then they’re really not much use,’ Mr. Alasdair Hainsworth, Chief of the Disaster Risk Reduction Services Division of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), told the UNISDR Science and Technology Conference.

There is also concern that over 80% of least developed countries have only a basic early warning system and only four or five out of 40 small island states have an effective early warning system in place.

These shortcomings are to be addressed by the US$100 million Climate Risk Early Warning System (CREWS) which was announced at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in March, 2015 supported by UNISDR, WMO , the World Bank and the French government.”


The aim of CREWS is to bring political and financial support to developing countries in an effort to help them get effective, sustainable emergency warning systems up.  CREWS doesn’t establish anything new, but rather, serves as a target and objective for the international community to work together to increase resilience worldwide. Lessons learned by the French Government, and other leaders worldwide will help bring about the necessary investment to help increase the penetration of effective warning systems where they don’t currently exist.

Where does America stand on this?  As one of the most developed countries with recent lessons in developing an Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), where do we start working with the international community to work towards saving lives?

Read the UNISDR report here.