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How can communities across the United States improve their disaster preparedness, response, and long-term recovery?

This was a central question at the National Association of County and City Health Officials’ (NACCHO) Preparedness Summit. As the crises facing our nation change from year to year—including drug-resistant bacteria, rising sea levels, and the opioid epidemic—creating sustainable, resilient communities is a crucial step to preparing for emergencies today and in the years to come. As a member of Fors Marsh Group’s Emergency Preparedness and Resilience Practice Area, I spend most of my time working with clients in the emergency management field in New England. The majority of my work has focused on supporting communities as they plan for natural disasters, but a few weeks ago (March 26-29) I had the opportunity to expand my horizons into the critical sector of public health preparedness by attending the NACCHO Preparedness Summit. I learned about the different approaches in public health preparedness, and the similarities in comparison to general emergency management. Some examples of public health activities include helping communities to address medical emergencies such as measles outbreaks, Ebola, and West Nile Virus, or the distribution of medical countermeasures for radiological disasters. These emergencies are very different from the earthquake and flood planning support that I assist with across New England communities.

Strong Coalitions Are Central to Disaster Preparedness

At the Preparedness Summit, I was thrilled to see that stakeholder engagement and building resilient communities were the cornerstones of both emergency preparedness and public health preparedness. These themes came up in the majority of breakout sessions I attended and were highlighted in the opening plenary session on Public/Private Partnerships in Disasters. It is reassuring to hear that the importance of building networks, creating coalitions, and focusing on creating good working relations are a central part of helping communities prepare for public health emergencies. On a daily basis, I support these networking efforts on the local level across New England, and I see the critical role these efforts play in creating more resilient communities when natural disasters occur.

To Bounce Back After Disasters, Know Your Emergency Manager

In the emergency management field, we know it is very important to have a family emergency communications plan and an emergency preparedness supply kit ready. Additionally, the public would greatly benefit from being aware of whom to contact and listen to in case of an emergency. By attending the Preparedness Summit, it became clear to me that the importance of building networks cannot be overestimated. Relationships between community-based organizations, faith-based communities, and health care providers with their emergency managers are critical and should be fostered during calm days, not just during emergencies. A well-connected community with a strong social capital will bounce back faster after a disaster, no matter if it is a natural, public health, or a man-made disaster.

Solution-Oriented Coalitions as Community Resiliency Indicators

As Fors Marsh Group works with clients to reach local and regional emergency managers and community stakeholders, we can drive community resilience. We know through our research that community resilience is becoming more critical, as we see the climate changing and disasters doing more damage and happening more frequently. We are proud to be a part of the solution, ensuring that experts can disseminate relevant information to the Americans who need it—whether through marketing campaigns, building local or regional coalitions, or delivering trainings and building capacity. Working to support coalition building takes time and is a long-term commitment to create resilient communities. I am happy to have the opportunity to work in this space.

Interested in knowing more about FMG’s work in disaster preparedness and emergency preparedness? You can read our expert’s perspectives on the changing disaster preparedness response or three trends in emergency management.  If you would like to chat with someone at FMG about your disaster preparedness and emergency management project, you can contact us.  

About the author

Sara Varela

Sara Varela serves as the Regional Preparedness Liaison for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region one for Fors Marsh Group. Sara has been working in communications and community economic development for over 15 years.

Prior to working in research consulting she worked at NeighborWorks America, a national intermediary, where she facilitated communication among 200 organizations that focused on community building and organizing activities, and work in rural communities across the country. She managed the online communications, facilitated peer to peer sharing and learning, and was involved in the grant allocation process.

In New Hampshire, Sara served as the South Central Regional Manager for a micro-lending program at the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund; worked as the Community Building Director at a local United Way, and was Communications and Development Director for Consumer Credit Counseling Services of New Hampshire and Vermont. Sara has experience in communications, fundraising, and service delivery.  She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications and a Master of Science in Community Economic Development from Southern New Hampshire University.

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