Guide for emergency responders provides tools for communicating with specific vulnerable groups

In Brief

In response to state demographics, a Florida Department of Health (DOH) work group developed a guide for emergency responders to communicate with various vulnerable populations during a disaster. The guide covers how to create an appropriate message, deliver it in a way that will be received and understood, and collaborate with area organizations that may have special knowledge or skills to reach their communities.


A significant number of Florida's 19 million residents are likely to be considered vulnerable during or following a disaster. Approximately 18% of Floridians are elderly, 23% have a language barrier, 12% live below the poverty line, and 18% have a disability.

Specific issues

  • Warning messages. Vulnerable populations may have difficulty receiving or understanding traditional warning messages during a disaster, due to their cognitive, economic, or language needs.
  • Identifying and communicating. Emergency responders and public health staff may be unaware of how to identify and communicate with populations that have different messaging needs.

The practice

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) developed a communication resource guide for public health personnel and emergency responders who will be providing information or warnings to vulnerable populations during an emergency.

In 2008, the Florida Special Needs Shelter Interagency Committee formed the Vulnerable Populations Work Group comprising members of several state programs, agencies, and partner and stakeholder organizations. As part of a Web site focused on planning for and responding to vulnerable populations during an emergency, the work group developed a communications guide for planners and responders working at the state or county level.

The guide is only intended for preparedness and response professionals and communicators and should not be used as advice for communicating with media outlets (generally the provenance and responsibility of Public Information Officers). As such, it offers detailed information on how to craft emergency messages, ways in which various vulnerable populations prefer or require receiving communications, and lists of tools that may help responders reach these objectives, where appropriate.

The guide specifically discusses aspects of emergency communication for the following groups:

  • The elderly
  • People with physical and developmental disabilities
  • Non-English speaking populations
  • People residing in shelters
  • Dialysis clients
  • Populations dependent on community-based technology (eg, home ventilators)
  • People receiving specialty care (eg, methadone treatment or services from a radiation/oncology clinic)
  • Migrant workers
  • People who are economically disadvantaged

Examples of communication recommendations for responders include:

  • Collaborating with service organizations—engaging leaders in the community being served and creating formal agreements for how communication will be handled
  • For the elderly—crafting emergency messages that follow a logical, understandable sequence
  • For various cultural groups—using translation services to ensure messages are communicated properly and ensuring that messages respect groups' beliefs surrounding grief, loss, and death
  • For people with developmental disabilities—referring to familiar emergencies (eg, fire drills) as a point of shared understanding
  • For people whose medical recovery is affected by the disaster—ensuring that behavioral and mental health aspects are touched on by risk communication messages

What made this practice possible?

  • Input from work group members representing:
    • Florida Children's Medical Services Regional Offices
    • The Agency for Persons with Disabilities Area Offices
    • The Department of Elder Affairs
    • Volunteer Florida
    • The Department of Children and Families' Family Safety Program Office
    • Office of Homelessness 
    • Mental Health Program Office
    • Substance Abuse Program Office
    • The Advocacy Center


  • The communication guide was used in 2011 to communicate time-sensitive information about countermeasures during the Bioshield Exercise. Participants also used the guide during the Statewide Hurricane Exercise. In both instances, use of the guide produced positive results and feedback.


For more information on Florida's emergency preparedness efforts for vulnerable populations, please visit the Web site listed below. Resources include agency capacity and county planning assessment tools, vulnerable populations profiles for Florida counties, and vulnerable populations fact sheets.

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