Real-time information network provides emergency education and warnings to refugees

In Brief

Three Utah state agencies worked with refugee community leaders to develop a real-time information network to communicate with limited-English proficient refugees during a disaster. The network's success depended on assigning different roles to each state agency, using a state refugee services liaison to maintain the network, and distributing emergency messages to trusted refugee leaders/interpreters.


While the largest refugee communities in the US are located in California and Florida, more than 1,000 refugees are resettled in Utah each year. Approximately 28,000 refugees comprising 32 different populations live in Utah, many of whom rely on trusted community leaders to assist them with the transition and interpret between English and their native language.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) Refugee Services Office, often the closest point of governmental contact with refugee communities, helps resettled people establish their lives with financial assistance and guidance. For the past 4 years, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) has worked with DWS to distribute educational material and 72-hour kits for emergency preparedness.

Specific issues
  • Communication-based risk. According to CDC (and many local) definitions, people who are limited in communication and have difficulty receiving or understanding information during an emergency are "at risk" of negative consequences. This definition includes people who do not speak or read English well or at all and people who do not have access to modes in which messages are being delivered (eg, television, Internet).
  • Language barriers. Most refugees in Utah do not speak English, and many are unable to read in their own language.
  • Inadequate methods of emergency communication. The ways in which health agencies normally communicate warnings or educational information during a disaster may fall short of reaching refugees and other populations with specialized communication needs.
  • Lack of precedent or mandate for refugee preparedness projects. UDOH found that none of the numerous jurisdictions it contacted had addressed the problem of emergency communication in modes and languages specific to refugee populations. Legal precedent, such as that found under the American Disabilities Act or civil rights law, also does not offer protections or guidance for limited-English-proficient populations in emergency communication.
The practice

Several Utah state agencies worked with leaders of refugee communities to develop a real-time, person-to-person emergency information network.

In 2013, the DWS Refugee Services Office requested that UDOH develop a way to ensure that refugees could be reached with relevant and current information during an emergency. Because traditional or often-used modes of communication and messages written or spoken in English may not be effective for this population, planners sought to build a Real-Time Information Network (RTIN) – a web of emergency managers, public health planners, and refugee community leaders who could spread messages during a disaster.

A task force comprising the DWS Office of Refugee Services (ORS), the Utah Department of Public Safety Division of Emergency Management (DEM), UDOH, and several community refugee organizations formed to outline agency and community responsibilities in building a RTIN in the following ways:

  • DWS Office of Refugee Services served as the main contact between state agencies and refugees by maintaining up-to-date information on community refugee organizations and their leaders. ORS also keeps a project liaison on staff to share and maintain the list with DEM.
  • DEM acts as the lead agency for the real-time information network because the division is primarily responsible for providing relevant and timely information during a disaster. The DEM Public Information Officer (PIO) works with the refugee services liaison to (1) send out news releases and emergency information, (2) hold exercises to determine effectiveness of emergency communication networks, (3) keep refugee leaders' contact information updated, (4) ensure the network is easy and useful for everyone to use during an emergency, and (5) teach refugee community leaders how to use the network.
  • UDOH is responsible for contacting the refugee liaison if a health emergency occurs. Also, health agency staff advise the network task force and the PIO on providing a service that is culturally and linguistically accessible.
  • Community refugee organizations maintain a contact list of refugee members and, after consultation with the liaison, a leader fluent in English contacts members via text message or phone call to disseminate information during an emergency. Refugee organization staff also attend and help to plan emergency exercises.
What made this practice possible?
  • Cross-agency collaboration. Close work between multiple state agencies – especially as they developed an effective pathway for emergency communication – was essential. Having each agency responsible for specific goals helped forge this partnership.
  • Dedicated staff. Having a refugee services liaison solely dedicated to the information network allowed collaborations, maintenance of the contact list, and other staff/community leader turnover to be managed smoothly.
  • Reliance on community leadership. Leaders from refugee communities played essential roles in coordinating and interpreting messages received from the refugees services liaison.
  • Community response to other public health services. Typical results measurement (eg, pre- and post-intervention questionnaires) would be inappropriate with a limited-English proficient population that has contributed significantly to building the network. UDOH planners have noted, however, that refugees request preparedness education and respond to information about the network with many questions and comments. In the past 4 years, UDOH has distributed more than 3,000 72-hour personal preparedness kits to refugees, showing engagement with the growing state/community network.

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