Multi-format communications program readies Spanish-speakers for emergencies

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In Brief

Following the deaths of many Latino residents during a 2003 ice storm, planners in North Carolina built a program to effectively reach Spanish-speaking residents about emergency preparedness and response. They trained neighborhood community health workers, increased multilingual capacity at the health agency, and disseminated preparedness and response messages in Spanish over numerous media channels.


During severe winter storms that cause significant ice damage or power outages, people who do not understand English, are recent immigrants, or who fear going to shelters because of immigration status may be at particular risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from improper use of heating sources during winter emergencies.

In 2002, such a storm in Orange County, North Carolina, caused power outages across the region. Temperatures dipped below freezing inside homes and buildings, and many people used generators and/or fireplaces to keep warm. Carbon monoxide poisoning sickened and killed a significant number of people, but particularly affected were Latino residents who primarily spoke Spanish.

Specific issues
  • Bilingual information on safe indoor heating and cooking methods was not widely available or accessible. Many people used generators and cooking grills for heat indoors, not realizing carbon monoxide was a danger in unventilated conditions.
  • Many Latino residents stayed in their homes, rather than using shelters provided for people who lost power. Although American Red Cross shelters provided a warm place to stay for people who had lost power, only two Latino community members used this resource. Low use of county shelters may have been due in part because people were not aware that shelters were open or where they were located. Community organizations also perceived that undocumented people may have been reluctant to use shelters due to fears of immigration enforcement at the shelter area.
The practice

The Orange County Health Department formed the Immigrant Emergency Communications Program to identify high populations of Spanish-speakers and provide bilingual emergency preparedness information in various formats.

The program mobilized members of health agencies, churches, community organizations, school systems, businesses, hospitals and clinics, public safety agencies, and the Chapel Hill Institute for Cultural and Language Education. Group activities have focused on a variety of communication areas and formats, including:

  • Identifying geographic areas with large numbers of Spanish-speaking people. Local community organizations working with migrant health, education, and child services created maps identifying locations of Latino immigrant households and community centers. Maps are updated each year.
  • Enhancing Spanish language capabilities at the local health department. Realizing that it was necessary to communicate urgent county messages to largely Spanish-speaking communities during an emergency, the agency created an internal policy to increase its bilingual staff. It also created staffing positions to respond to health agency calls in Spanish.
  • Creating a public education and outreach campaign. Planners developed multiple methods for reaching Spanish-speakers, including a Spanish-language emergency preparedness publication, posters, and radio spots to increase awareness of and preparedness for emergencies. Materials were distributed via local Spanish-language media and Latino community events. During an emergency, the agency planned to disseminate urgent information via a call-down tree of public and community agencies and via door-to-door visits from bilingual county employees.
  • Training community emergency preparedness teams. Aside from increasing bilingual county staff, the agency also recruited and trained community health workers (promotoras) to conduct educational campaigns within neighborhoods.
  • Sending bilingual risk communication messages via voicemail and cell phones. The agency's alert system involves sending bilingual text messages during emergencies. Planners also encouraged community organizations that provide essential social services to use multilingual messages on voicemail during emergency closures.
What made this practice possible?
  • Formation of a working group, comprised of members from emergency management, public health, and social services
  • Funding from numerous sources, including a State Homeland Security Program grant, federal and local preparedness funds to cover costs related to personnel and publicity, and in-kind support from participating community organizations
  • Flexibility in area of focus, with the ability to adapt to new needs and project components. The program's initial mission was to provide outreach and education, but as it developed, planners added activities focused on training personnel and providing various levels of community support.
  • The program built the Latino community's capacity to respond to disasters, from providing assurances that communications would be available and accessible in different formats during an emergency to building teams that taught preparedness within neighborhoods.
  • People exhibited greater comfort with emergency response during future emergencies. During another ice storm, the program staffed an American Red Cross shelter with bilingual volunteers. More than 300 Latino residents used shelters during this storm.

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