Survey says public health workers lag in preparedness

Feb 13, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Public health workers are urging Americans to stock up and plan for the next emergency, but when it comes to their own lives, the cupboards are often bare, according to a recent survey by the American Public Health Association (APHA).

The APHA conducted an informal survey of its members in October and November and published the results in the December-January issue of its newsletter, The Nation’s Health. Of 4,100 public health workers who responded, 60% said they didn’t have evacuation plans for their households, 52% said they didn’t have emergency communication strategies for their families, and 81% didn’t know the evacuation plan for their community.

Though most said they had adequate emergency supplies such as matches, candles, and flashlights at home, few kept such supplies or food at work, and 60% said they weren’t aware of an evacuation plan at their workplace.

The American Red Cross recommends that Americans keep at least a 3-day supply of food and water for emergency use, but almost half of the respondents said they didn’t have drinking water set aside, and 35% said they lacked nonperishable food supplies.

In other results, 64% of respondents said they were "somewhat," "very," or "extremely" concerned about the threat of an influenza pandemic. The respondents listed natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes as the emergencies that worry them most.

Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the APHA, said the survey results point up a need for better education and outreach for the public health workforce, The Nation's Health reported. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, public health workers have been advocating personal preparedness measures to the public, he said. "Unfortunately, in our efforts to reach others, we may be neglecting to prepare ourselves," Benjamin added.

Personal preparedness for public health employees is vital to the larger disaster-response picture, because when the next emergency hits, workers will need to focus on helping victims and guiding evacuations, not worrying about themselves or their families, Benjamin said.

Daniel Barnett, MD, MPH, who teaches a personal preparedness course for public health workers at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said recent terrorist attacks and natural disasters have raised expectations about the public health system’s capacity to respond to emergencies. "From preparedness kits to communication plans, personal and family readiness is fundamental to meeting these expectations," he told CIDRAP News by e-mail. "The survey findings starkly highlight the need for enhanced instruction on personal readiness planning in all health departments."

"Research has shown that public health workers are less likely to be willing to report to duty in emergencies due to concerns about personal and family safety," Barnett said.

More than 60% of the survey respondents acknowledged a need to be more prepared. The APHA said some respondents reported that taking the emergency preparedness survey would motivate them to prepare at home and at work.

The APHA cautioned that the findings may not represent a complete picture of public health worker preparedness nationwide, because the respondents were self-selected and included only people who had Internet access. The organization said it plans to gauge the level of the public’s overall preparedness by conducting a formal survey in April during National Public Health Week.

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