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Disaster Alerts at the Speed of Sound

Jun 3, 2014, 1:31 PM

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Map This: National Weather Service Unfurls New Storm Surge Maps As Hurricane Season Begins

Jun 2, 2014, 2:14 PM

file Sample storm surge map being introduced for the 2014 hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.

Faces of Public Health: Laura Howe, The American Red Cross

May 9, 2014, 3:05 PM

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The American Red Cross recently announced the opening of its second Digital Operations Center—the first one outside of its national headquarters in Washington, D.C.—in the organization’s North Texas Region. Both centers are funded by the Dell Computer Corporation. The new center, along with others to be opened in the next few years, expands the ability of the American Red Cross to engage in social media, especially during regional disasters.

The Center will “allow us to build a center of expertise through our digital volunteers who help provide social data for regional responses,” said Laura Howe, vice president of public relations at the American Red Cross. NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Howe about the impact of using social media to respond during disasters.

NewPublicHealth: How did the Red Cross social listening program begin?

Laura Howe: We started a social listening program for emergencies and disaster in a fulsome way after the Haiti earthquake. I walked out of my office and I had a bunch of staff members who were in tears. They were getting Twitter and Facebook messages from members of the Haitian diaspora community here in the United States giving them the exact locations of where people were trapped under rubble and where people needed help in Port au Prince. We were able to move that information to the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Defense to hopefully get people help on the ground. But, it showed us two things. It showed us the power of individuals to provide information that can help responders, but it also showed that there was a tremendous gap in the response system for being able to take in information and respond specifically to people who had an urgent emergency rescue need, and there really is no infrastructure to be able to do that.

But I do want to make clear that the Red Cross as an organization and Red Cross disaster workers are not going to be able to take in information off of social media and then send one of our people to come get you out of the rubble or to come rescue you. We are not acting as a 911 dispatch here. We are using social media platforms to provide people with preparedness information, emotional support and information that they can take action on. We’re also listening for information that can help us in our disaster response generally and help us better hone where we’re putting our resources during a disaster.

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NPH: What are the criteria for an optimal American Red Cross digital volunteer?

Laura Howe: We want someone who is comfortable in a social space; understands social media platforms and how social communities work; and is comfortable engaging with the public, having done that previously. Volunteers don’t necessarily have to have professional experience with social media, but do have to have a personal comfort level. Our training follows up on those prior skills about how to engage on behalf of the Red Cross. We train the digital volunteers about how we take in the information and then move it to our decision makers in order to make operational decisions.

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Faces of Public Health: Esther Chernak, Drexel University School of Public Health

Apr 18, 2014, 1:45 PM

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The Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication (CPHRC) at the Drexel University School of Public Health in Philadelphia recently re-launched DiversityPreparedness.org, a clearinghouse of resources and an information exchange portal to facilitate communication, networking and collaboration to improve preparedness, build resilience and eliminate disparities for culturally diverse communities across all phases of an emergency. The site had originally been developed by Dennis Andrulis, now at the Texas Health Institute, and Jonathan Purtle, who co-writes a blog on public health for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

>>Bonus Links:

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, the head of CPHRC, about the re-launched site and her work in preparedness.

NewPublicHealth: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to lead the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication.

Esther Chernak: I’m an infectious disease physician by training and pretty much have been working in public health since I finished my infectious disease fellowship in 1991 at the University of Pennsylvania. I started working in the Philadelphia Department of Public Health in its city clinic system doing HIV/AIDS care, and then became the Clinical Director of HIV Clinical Programs for the health centers back in the early ’90s when the epidemic was obviously very different. I then moved to working in infectious disease epidemiology as a staff doctor in the acute communicable disease control program and was involved in infectious disease surveillance and outbreak investigations for a number of years.

Then in 1999, I took a job with the City Health Department in what was then called bioterrorism preparedness. That was the time when major cities in the country were just beginning to be funded to do bioterrorism response plans. Groups that were involved in bioterrorism preparedness recognized relatively quickly that despite the fact that we were dealing with planning for novel strains of influenza and pandemic preparedness and SARS and smallpox, we were also dealing with many, many really significant infectious disease outbreaks, and then ultimately non-infectious disease related issues that had huge impacts on public health, such as earthquakes and hurricanes. Those links helped prepare me for my role at the Center.

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"It's Good to Know the Red Cross is There"

Apr 11, 2014, 5:06 PM, Posted by Jeff Meade

American Red Cross visit to RWJF No. 5 Northern New Jersey American Red Cross volunteers Hart Coven and Bob Hassmiller (photo by Jeff Meade)

The emergency response vehicle (ERV) fielded by the American Red Cross of Northern New Jersey is all gleaming white with shining chrome, flashing lights, diesel engine chugging away, the distinctive Red Cross logo emblazoned on its sides, larger than life.

The truck itself is about the size of a small delivery van, but even with a pair of comfortable padded seats, the inside looks roomy. But don't be fooled. Each of the red plastic insulated crates stacked like Lego bricks up toward the front of the truck can contain 50 hot meals. That’s a lot of mac and cheese. Up to 350 meals in all on a really busy night. There's enough coffee and juice to revive and hydrate exhausted firefighters for hours. Volunteers can give out a good many compact little "comfort kits," containing toiletries and other day-to-day necessities.

And of course, there are blankets—the big, warm white ones, also bearing the Red Cross symbol. The kind you see on local TV news, draped around the shoulders of folks driven from their  apartment complex by an overnight multi-alarm blaze.

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FDA’s Role in Disaster Preparedness: Q&A with Brooke Courtney

Apr 9, 2014, 2:07 PM

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was a partner agency for last week’s Preparedness Summit in Atlanta. NewPublicHealth spoke with Brooke Courtney, Senior Regulatory Counsel in the FDA Office of Counterterrorism and Emerging Threats, about how the agency plans for disasters it hopes never occur. Previously, Courtney was the Preparedness Director at the Baltimore City Health Department and in that role oversaw all of the public health preparedness and response activities for Baltimore City.

NewPublicHealth: What did you speak about at the Summit last week?

Brooke Courtney: FDA views the summit as an unparalleled opportunity each year to engage with stakeholders at the state, local and federal levels—to share with them updates from the federal side and also for us to get feedback from them about challenges and successes. We engage with stakeholders on a regular basis, but this is really the meeting where the largest number of people involved in preparedness come together, and it’s a great opportunity to see people face-to-face.

We feel really fortunate to have been able to take part in the summit for the past few years. For this year’s summit FDA served on the Planning Committee and also participated in the medical countermeasure policy town hall with federal colleagues from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the national security staff, all of whom we work with closely.

Another thing that we like to do at the summit each year is to give a more in-depth update through a session with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) legal counsel on the authorities that we have that we use related to the emergency use of medical countermeasures during emergencies. This year’s session was especially exciting for us because it was an opportunity for us to discuss with stakeholders some new authorities that were established in 2013 to enhance preparedness and response flexibility.

For example, we can now clearly issue emergency use authorizations in advance of emergencies, which is really a critical medical countermeasure tool for preparedness purposes. Through these flexibilities, for example, we’ve issued three emergency use authorizations in the past year for three different in-vitro diagnostic tests to address the emerging threats of H7 and 9 influenza and MERS-CoV.

NPH: What are the key responsibilities the FDA has in helping to prepare the United States for possible disasters?

Courtney: As an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the FDA, at its core, is a public health agency. FDA’s mission is to protect and promote public health in a number of critical ways. We’re responsible for regulating more than $1 trillion in consumer goods annually, ranging from medical products such as drugs and vaccines to tobacco and food products.

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Preparedness Summit Partners: The American Red Cross

Apr 8, 2014, 1:05 PM

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At this year’s Preparedness Summit, which met last week in Atlanta, the American Red Cross was a first-time partner for the annual event which brings together more than 1,000 preparedness experts from around the country.

“It was important for us to partner with the American Red Cross because they have a major role and responsibility in disasters,” said Jack Herrmann, the Summit chair and Chief of Public Health Preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), the lead partner for the Summit. “We felt that it was important that the public health and health care communities understand the Red Cross’ role and authority during a disaster and look for ways to foster and build partnerships [among] local health departments, state health departments and American Red Cross chapters across the country.”

Just prior to the Summit, NewPublicHealth conducted an interview by email with Russ Paulsen, Executive Director, Community Preparedness and Resilience Services of the American Red Cross.

NewPublicHealth: What are the key issues that communities should focus on now to get themselves better prepared for a disaster should it occur?

Russ Paulsen: Everyone has a role to play in getting communities better prepared for disasters.

As a first step, individuals, organizations and communities should understand the problem: What hazards are in their area? How likely are any of these hazards to become actual disasters? What have people already put in place to deal with them? Local Red Cross chapters can help with this assessment.

Once people understand the problem, the next step is to make a plan. Plan what to do in case you are separated from your family or household members during an emergency, and plan what to do if you must evacuate your home. Coordinate your household plan with your household members’ schools, daycare facilities, workplaces and with your community’s emergency plans.

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Five Simple Things to Do Today to be Prepared for an Emergency

Apr 7, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Sean D. Andersen

New Jersey American Red Cross Fire Photo

What if your doorbell rings tonight, and a policeman tells you your neighbor’s home is on fire and you and your family must get out of the house immediately?

What if a family member starts choking at the dinner table?

What if a tornado warning is issued at this very moment?

Although scary to imagine, all of the above are realistic scenarios families face here in New Jersey, and throughout the United States. Would you know what to do? Are you prepared?

Disasters can strike quickly and often without warning. Being prepared and knowing what to do in an emergency can make all the difference—it can even save lives.

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Faces of Public Health: Q&A with Thomas Bornemann, The Carter Center

Apr 4, 2014, 12:50 PM

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Behavioral health was a frequent topic at this year’s Preparedness Summit in Atlanta for both presenters and attendees, who focus on helping people cope with stress during a disaster as well as on mental health conditions which can be exacerbated by the stress of an emergency. Thomas Bornemann, EdD, has been the director of mental health programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta since 2002. The Carter Center is the philanthropic foundation of former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, and focuses primarily on peace and health initiatives globally and in the United States.

NewPublicHealth spoke with Bornemann about the Center’s mental health programs and challenges that lie ahead. We spoke with Bornemann several days before the shooting this week at Fort Hood.

NewPublicHealth: What are the key mental health projects underway at the Carter Center?

Thomas Bornemann: We’re involved in a number of issues at the local level, national level and globally. One of our major global programs is a program in Liberia, West Africa, where we’ve been working on scaling up services in this post-conflict, low-income country. We are in our fourth year of five, and we’re providing three services: We’re training mental health workers because their mental health system was decimated after the war; we have helped them develop a national mental health policy plan and a national mental health law that will go to the legislature for approval this year we hope; and we’ve been working on the issues of stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses and helping to develop support for family caregivers who provide the lion’s share of the care.

In the United States we’ve been working for years on Mrs. Carter’s number one healthy policy priority, which has been the implementation of mental health parity legislation which passed in 2008. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been working on final regulations since then which spell out the terms and conditions of parity. We’ve been working on monitoring that through the years, and we were very proud that in November Secretary Kathleen Sebelius came here to announce the release of the regulations out of respect for Mrs. Carter’s long commitment to parity legislation. We’ll continue to monitor the parity efforts as they become implemented through the Affordable Care Act.

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2014 Preparedness Summit: Programs Train Young Adults to Counsel Peers After a Disaster

Apr 3, 2014, 2:22 PM

Disaster experts at this week’s Preparedness Summit underscored the importance of meeting the specific needs of children and young adults in a disaster, who often react not only to their own response to a crisis but also to how adults around them are responding and dealing with the situation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a program called Teen CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) which teaches readiness and response skills and includes practice and exercises. A California fourteen-year-old Teen CERT member, for example, has 17,000 Twitter followers for a weekly feed she updates with disaster preparedness tips.

Teen CERT Training takes 20-30 hours; more if teens are also certified in CPR, First Aid and the use of automatic defibrillators. Training includes:

  • Keeping the teen volunteer safe while helping others
  • Identifying and anticipate hazards
  • Reducing fire hazards in the home and workplace
  • Using fire extinguishers to put out small fires
  • Assisting emergency responders
  • Conducting light search and rescue
  • Setting up medical treatment areas
  • Applying basic first aid techniques and helping reduce survivor stress

Teen CERT members are also eligible for community credits which many high schools require for graduation.

And Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness spearheads a program called SHOREline, which has a pilot program at five high schools in the Gulf Coast. Students work on organizational and leadership skills; meet and practice preparedness drills with local and national experts; and attend youth preparedness summits, said David Abramson, PHD, MPH, the deputy director of the Center who spoke about the SHOREline program at the Preparedness Summit this morning.

Abramson told attendees about the work of one group of SHOREline members at a Gulf Coast high school who took the lead on a disaster recently when a student at the school was killed by in a shooting. Seeing that the school had not planned a memorial service, the students raised $500 and bought all the helium balloons they could find for a service they planned and carried out that Abramson said was very critical for community recovery.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.