Boston health coalition builds cross-agency emergency communication structure

In Brief

More than 400 health agencies in the greater Boston area formed a coalition to establish an emergency communications network. The coalition serves its individual members via training opportunities, creating avenues for mutual aid, and advocating for policy priorities at the state level. As a result, communications training and information management have been incorporated consistently across member agencies.

Background

Owing both to federal priorities and regional needs, the development of preparedness coalitions across state agencies, local governmental bodies, hospitals, and private healthcare systems has received increased attention. But with greater cooperation comes increased need for clear and consistent communication across agencies, ensuring that all are equally informed before and during an emergency. Massachusetts' unique political structure (in which cities and towns, rather than counties, hold decision-making power) makes coalition-building and inter-agency communication an especially important aspect of jurisdictionally tailored planning.

Specific issue
  • Long-held jurisdictional processes. Healthcare systems and health agencies are accustomed to operating under an accepted set of procedures. Coordinating planning and communications across complex and often locally specific standards can be difficult both for planners and also for agencies that must learn to operate across organizational cultures.
The practice

The Boston University School of Public Health, along with more than 400 health agencies in three Massachusetts regions, formed the Partnership for Effective Emergency Response (PEER) to address health emergencies in the greater Boston area.

The PEER program comprises agencies across the spectrum of healthcare and public health, including 28 hospitals, 62 local health departments, 227 long-term care facilities, 70 emergency medical services organizations, and 31 community health centers. Participants collectively serve approximately 2.2 million people in 62 cities and towns in greater Boston.

The coalition is a communications network that serves several purposes, including:

  • Developing an emergency notification and communication system that spans and connects agencies with up-to-date information
  • Providing training on preparedness technology and protocols
  • Recruiting and enrolling associated organizations into the system in order to build a robust, connected web of trained response agencies
  • Integrating PEER's system of notification into all individual emergency communications plans

Far from being simply a loose collection of agencies devoted to a common purpose, PEER engages and serves its members in several ways, including:

  • Developing and providing online training modules
  • Assessing member capacities and identifying opportunities for mutual aid and response support
  • Integrating agencies' operations personnel into working groups that formed streamlined communications protocols
  • Serving as a liaison between members and the state health department in order to communicate procedural changes that may benefit local agencies
What made this practice possible?
  • Funding provided by the National Bioterrorism Preparedness Program and CDC
  • Participation and intensive committee and recruitment work by more than 400 Massachusetts agencies
Results
  • Development of cross-agency training materials. The PEER network created online communications training modules and held functional exercises to enhance healthcare/public health cooperation across the Boston region.
  • Creation of a robust inter-agency information management system. PEER's system for inter-agency notification and communication has been adopted and adapted by the Massachusetts Department of Health's Emergency Preparedness Bureau.
Notes

PEER's next steps include incorporating federal capabilities guidance to healthcare coalition procedures, developing ways to continue engaging participating members, and implement mutual aid agreements.

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