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July 30
Emergency plans for everyone: engaging people with access and functional needs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, almost 1 in 5 adults - more than 50 million people - in the United States have a disability. In the 25 years since the American with Disabilities Act became law, emergency response has come a long way in assisting people who have disabilities, yet experience shows that individuals with access and functional needs are still the least able to take advantage of community resources and activities to prepare and respond to disasters.

Not every person with a disability will need assistance in a disaster and some individuals who live independently may have short-term or situation-based access and functional needs. Identifying these individuals can be challenging because people with disabilities may not self-identify and people who may live and function independently day-to-day could need additional assistance in disaster if their assistive technology or equipment is lost or damaged. Anticipating and planning for these needs is vital to protecting health and could prevent the need for legal action by individuals or community organizations.

ASPR recommends a planning approach called the CMIST Framework. The five integrated CMIST categories (Communication; Maintaining health; Independence; Services and support; and Transportation) provide a flexible, cross-cutting approach for addressing access and functional needs. Using the framework can help public health officials and emergency managers address a broad set of access and functional needs irrespective of specific diagnosis, status, or label.

Whether or not you use the CMIST Framework, consider this: the most reliable way to plan for access and functional needs is to ask. Even if you think you know, asking people with disabilities what type of assistance they may need can be eye-opening and reveal crucial gaps in community preparedness. Form an advisory panel of residents who have access and functional needs that are representative of your community, and ask them how your agency can assist them in a disaster. In emergency drills, involve people who actually have access and functional needs, not actors, to truly test your plan.

Consider these points as you engage people with access or functional needs on advisory groups and in drills:

Emergency planners know that shelters need to be accessible and shelter assessments must take access and functional needs into account. However, from the perspective of people with disabilities, how accessible are your emergency shelters, really, and can people with disabilities even reach these shelters?

What kind of accessible transportation should you reserve so that people with mobility limitations can evacuate if they need to? How much accessible transportation may be needed and exactly where in your community is it needed?

People with electrically powered durable medical equipment including oxygen concentrators and portable ventilators may need to evacuate quickly in prolonged power outages no matter what caused the outage. In a power outage how many people may need help getting out of their homes, especially from multi-story buildings? Do you know where these individual live in your community? Can you muster the staffing needed to canvass neighborhoods, knocking on doors to find people who may need evacuation assistance? How ready is your staff members and volunteers to guide or carry residents down multiple flights of stairs (think high-rise apartment building) if elevators aren’t running?

The new HHS emPOWER Map can help you determine how many people in your area rely on electrically powered durable medical equipment. This information also can help public health agencies work with emergency managers and local utility companies to anticipate specific power needs in shelters and in prioritizing power restoration.

Assistive equipment, like wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and hearing aids, can be lost or destroyed in disasters, leaving people in need of assistance who usually function independently. What kind of assistive equipment is prevalent in your community? Is your staff trained to evacuate residents with their assistive devices or equipment? If assistive devices do become damaged or separated from individuals with access and functional needs, are your staff and volunteers trained to identify and address these needs, especially in shelters? Are there community organizations that could partner with your agency to provide this training?

People with access and functional needs may use support services to assist with activities of daily living at home and, after a disaster, these service providers may be unavailable. People who use these services may be the most difficult population to uncover in your community. Reach out to these service providers to ask about the types of services their clients will need in a disaster and what the organizations would need from your agency to keep services in place. Ask, too, about their emergency plans and how to involve these organizations in your community emergency plans.

Communicating clearly during emergencies is vital to protecting health and saving lives; this includes communicating often about the status of transportation and the locations of shelters. Use multiple modes of communication and provide multiple types of messaging to ensure that everyone receives the information. What do residents say about how accessible your community’s emergency information is? What can you do to make it more accessible?

At first, it may seem too personal to ask about an individual’s access or functional needs, especially when engaging the disability community for the first time. Being successful requires practice, openness and a willingness to find and fix gaps. Remember, people with disabilities are the most knowledgeable about their own needs.

Has your organization engaged people with access and functional needs in community planning and drills? If so, share what your learned by commenting on this blog. Have a role model plan to share? Submit it to TRACIE, ASPR’s Technical Resources Assistance Center and Information Exchange. 

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July 24
HHS Response and Recovery Compendium: what HHS can do for you in a disaster

When you’re trying to protect health in a disaster, knowing your options matters. For state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) agencies, the federal government offers some great resources that could improve situational awareness, supplement staffing, provide needed medical equipment, and more. Now, ASPR has a tool, the HHS Response and Recovery Resources Compendium, to help SLTT agencies identify and navigate these federal resources.

ASPR reached out across HHS, pulled together the details, and built the Compendium. It’s an easy-to-navigate, comprehensive, web-based repository of HHS products, services and capabilities available to SLTT agencies before, during, and after public health and medical incidents. By using the compendium, these SLTT officials know what resources they can count on when they need it most and, importantly, how to request them.

The information spans 24 categories, and each category showcases the relevant disaster resources available from HHS, a brief description of each resource and information on accessing each one. Resources span from technology to personnel.

The compendium showcases products like TRACIE, the National Library of Medicine’s PEOPLE LOCATOR Family Reunification, GeoHEALTH, and the HHS emPOWER Map. The collection also describes consultation services and technical assistance from ACF, ASPR, CDC, CMS, FDA, NIH, and SAMHSA, such as emergency planning, disease surveillance and tracking, and food, drug and device safety. The new tool also details the supplemental personnel available, such as medical or public health staff from U.S. Public Health Service and National Disaster Medical System, who can deploy to communities to augment local hospital, shelter or public health staff.

Already, there are about 100 resources described – including how to access or request use of the resources – and that number will continue to grow. We’ll keep the compendium updated continually, and expand it as federal agencies add products, capabilities and services to help communities prepare for, respond to and recover from the health impacts of disasters. We welcome new entries from other federal agencies, too.

We encourage our SLTT partners to check out the compendium. Did you find what you need or do you have questions? Please let us know in a comment to this blog or by contacting

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July 16
What would you do if you knew?

Picture this: A storm or a summer heat wave leads to widespread rolling blackouts. Although the local electric company is rapidly working to restore power, full restoration in your community could take days. For most people, power outages are an inconvenience. For others, it can be a matter of life and death.

There are people in your community, perhaps in your neighborhood, who rely on medical and assistive equipment – such as oxygen concentrators, portable ventilators, electric wheelchairs – that require electricity. The longer the power outage lasts, the greater their risk of being hospitalized or dying.

What would you do if you knew how many people in your zip code relied on these kinds of equipment to live at home independently?

Would you open your fire department, business, place of worship, shelter, or community center so they could plug in or recharge their back-up battery? Would you change the size of the facility’s backup generator to accommodate this growing need? Would you support the energy company’s decision to prioritize power restoration so those zip codes come online first?

Today we have a new tool, the HHS emPOWER Map, which anyone can use to see approximately how many people use electricity dependent medical equipment in their state, territory, county, or zip code and tracks severe weather events.

As many of the people who use electricity-dependent equipment are Medicare beneficiaries, the HHS emPOWER Map provides the total number of Medicare beneficiary claims for certain electricity-dependent medical and assistive equipment down to the zip-code level. It also provides National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “real-time” severe weather tracking to assist community members in identifying areas that may be at risk for weather-related power outages.

So how can you and your community help? Together, we can all better anticipate potential needs for people who are electricity-dependent, emergency plan for the whole community, and more rapidly assist community members who might be at risk in an emergency — such as storms, earthquakes, wildfires, extreme heat — that brings prolonged power outages.

Teresa Ehnert, chief of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ Bureau of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, helped ASPR pilot the HHS emPOWER Map and says it’s an amazing resource to have at the state’s fingertips.

Before Arizona officials had access to the HHS emPOWER Map, the information they had about this at-risk population only went down to the county level. Approximately 6.7 million people live in Arizona and about 4 million – roughly 60 percent of the state’s overall population – are concentrated in just one county. Numbers down to the zip code level gave emergency and health planners a clearer picture of their community’s potential medical needs in a disaster, and helped them prioritize resources based on the scope and size of the emergency.

Beyond the total number of people who rely on electricity-dependent medical equipment, health officials also can collaborate with ASPR to obtain additional de-identified data that provides the totals for each type of equipment in their community. By working with health officials and using this important tool:

  • Emergency managers can determine whether emergency shelters need a larger generator to accommodate an influx of electricity-dependent residents.
  • Community organizations and businesses can plan with emergency managers and health departments and offer a place for some residents to plug in and recharge the batteries.
  • Electric companies could prioritize power restoration based on the concentration of electricity-dependent residents in given areas.
  • Hospitals could better anticipate local medical needs and be better prepared to handle a potential surge of patients in an emergency.

In short, the HHS emPOWER Map can help you make better-informed decisions to protect health from the impacts of disasters.

Check out the HHS emPOWER Map and let us know how you’re using it by emailing

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July 14
Health Tips for the Peak of Summer

In my 25 years as an emergency medicine physician, I’ve seen the catastrophic effect heat can have on health, including hospitalization and even death. While infants, the elderly, people with chronic medical conditions and workers in outdoor professions are at greater risk, extreme heat can impact anyone.

In Washington, D.C. where I work, the hottest period may be just days away – from July 11-15, according to 30-year averages calculated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. The hottest time of the year actually varies across the country, from June in parts of the Southwest to September along the Pacific Coast.

Regardless of when summer’s heat peaks in your area, you can help keep people out of the emergency department by watching for signs of heat stress in yourself, your family, and others around you, and if you see someone exhibiting the signs, help them get the medical attention they need. Being ready to help in all sorts of extreme weather events also improves your community’s resiliency and the nation’s health security overall. You could even save a life.

People suffering from heat stress may experience heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale, and clammy skin; fast, weak pulse; and nausea or vomiting. Early signs include muscle cramps, heat rash, fainting or near-fainting spells, and a pulse or heart rate greater than 100. If you believe someone is suffering from heat stress, they need to move to a cooler location and lie down; apply cool, wet cloths to the body; and sip water. They should remain in the cool location until recovered and their pulse heart rate is well under 100.

Signs that someone might be suffering from the most severe heat-related illness, heat stroke, include a body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit; hot, red, dry or moist skin; rapid and strong pulse; and “altered mental status” that can range from confusion and agitation to possible unconsciousness. If you see someone exhibiting these signs, call 911 immediately; help the person move to a cooler environment; reduce the person’s body temperature with cool cloths soaked in ice water especially to head, neck, arm pits and upper legs near the groin area where combined 70 percent of body heat can be lost, or even a cool bath if you can stay with them to ensure they do not drown; and do not give them fluids.

Children are especially vulnerable to heat illnesses, and can’t always tell us what is wrong. When it’s hot outside, consider any change in a child’s behavior as heat stress.

To help prevent heat-related illness:

  • Spend time in locations with air-conditioning.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Good choices are water and diluted sport electrolyte drinks (1 part sport drink to 2 parts water) unless told otherwise by your doctor.
  • Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
  • Limit outdoor activity to morning and evening hours

As people crank up air conditioning in the peak time of summer, electrical grids can become overwhelmed, causing power outages. In power outages, people who rely on electricity-dependent medical devices, like oxygen concentrators and electric wheelchairs, may need assistance so check on your neighbors!

Community organizations and businesses can help local emergency managers and health departments plan for the community’s health needs amid the summer heat – and other emergency situations that can cause power outages – using the new the HHS emPOWER Map, launched by HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. The HHS emPOWER Map provides the monthly total number of Medicare beneficiaries’ claims for electricity-dependent equipment at the national, state, territory, county, and zip code levels.

Heat related illnesses are dangerous – but they are also preventable. Take some time to learn more about ways to beat the heat so that you, your family, and your community can have a safer, healthier summer.

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July 09
Preparedness as a Single Parent: How Preparing for Emergencies Brought Me Peace of Mind

Being a single parent is stressful, and there are usually more demands on your time, money and attention than you can manage in a day. Preparing for emergencies can seem daunting and it can be hard to make preparedness a priority when there is just so much else to do. As a single parent, I found that if you go slow, make smart plans, and rely on your friends and family, preparing for emergencies is manageable and being ready for a disaster can help bring you peace of mind.

My daughter's father and I split up when she was just about to turn seven. He was in the Air Force, and I had a job on the base that (barely) paid the bills, so I decided to stay in town so our daughter could have access to both parents as she transitioned to two homes.

We also lived in Panama City in the Florida Panhandle at the time and were seeing a lot of hurricane activity in the first two years after our split. In Panama City, your home can be any two of three things: clean, safe, and affordable. I chose safe and affordable, but that still didn’t leave a lot of money left over for luxury items like dinners out, overnight trips to different beaches, and an emergency kit.

I know…an emergency kit is most definitely NOT a luxury item. But when you have to choose between food you can eat this week and supplies you might not need for a while, you go for the short-term gain.

I started by making a plan that relied on the friends who care for me and the resources I already had. Anytime an evacuation order was issued – and there were several – I would send my daughter with her active duty father and then hunker down in my old townhouse and hope for the best. We often had enough notice for storms that I could take some of this week’s grocery money and stock up on some items I knew I would need during the storm. Sometimes friends would take me in and let me catch a ride out of town with them and then spring for my share of the lodging while we had to stay away. Those friends were angels!

Desperate times call for desperate measures, but I knew this was not a way to prepare myself for emergencies. Slowly but surely, I built my kit. I started by finding out what items I needed for an emergency kit and figuring out what I already had. I put those things into my kit, looked over the list, and figured out what was left. Some things, like gathering together important papers and making copies of our prescriptions, were pretty close to free.

Then, I slowly bought some things to fill in the gaps. One payday I would buy the container to keep it in and then stash some paper goods I already had on hand in there. The next payday I bought four gallons of water. Then some canned goods and non-perishable snacks. Batteries came after that. I did all this during the off-season, and by the time the next hurricane season came around I had a fully stocked kit ready to go. I also started dumping my spare change into a bucket that I would periodically cash in at the bank to add to my kit. This allowed me to at least be able to offer to cover some evacuation expenses when I left town with friends.

My advice to any single parent out there who is struggling to just make ends meet is to go slow. My initial thought that I had to do everything at once was both overwhelming and dangerous. By adding just one item each payday to my kit, I was able to build it over time. And that bought a lot more peace of mind than I ever expected.

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June 22
Customer Review: Psychological First Aid for Leaders

Disaster season is upon us: flood season, hurricane season, the cusp of wildfire season, tornado season, and then there’s earthquake season which seems to be year-round. To help myself and the team through whatever this year may hold in disasters or disaster responses, I took a free psychological first aid course called, “Building Workforce Resilience through the Practice of Psychological First Aid – A Course for Supervisors and Leaders Exit Icon.” While these skills are important for everybody, they’re truly critical for leaders in any capacity. Here’s what I thought of the training:

Ease of use: Excellent. I created a profile which allowed me to leave and return easily. This was important since the training was 90 minutes long, and I didn’t have an uninterrupted 90 minutes to devote. I liked that the sessions didn’t time out when I stopped to take a phone call and that when I closed the website to leave my desk, I could log in again later and pick up exactly where I’d left. Also, the training wasn’t a series of PowerPoint slides; it was professional, high-end production training modules.

Relevance: I learned a few things I could use, how to refer an employee to an employee assistance program for example. The training also brought me back to some basics of effective leadership, reminding me that a fundamental characteristic of a leader is noticing the people around us, what they’re going through, how they’re reacting to challenging or stressful situations, and how it’s affecting the entire team’s performance.

The session points out that we have to know what people are like every day to recognize when they are at their breaking point. So the training reminded me to step out of myself on a daily basis and especially during those stressful disaster response moments and look closely at the team around me. So – bonus – the techniques taught in this course have a day-to-day use, could improve my leadership skills overall, and may help build more a cohesive team.

Engagement: The training mixed narration and reading with continual movement on the screen – new pics, video, audio, text – every second or two to stimulate the senses and prevent boredom.

The course engaged me right away and kept me engaged by challenging me throughout with quizzes that required carefully reading and actual thinking. I realized I was cheering for myself, “hurray, I got two points!” It was a simple, quick way to draw me into the topic and dare me to continue paying attention.

Just as in life, the tests didn’t come at predictable intervals, and there were no do-overs. I’m on the competitive side and getting a wrong answer galls me. Thankfully injured pride is the only negative outcome to getting a wrong answer in the training. You can go back, look at what you could have done better, and really learn.

Overall rating: I have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of online training, but this one was a great surprise. I’d give it a two-thumbs-up, 4.5 out of 5 stars; it was definitely better than other psychological first aid webinars or slide-based training I’ve taken. In my opinion, only classroom training with actual role playing beats it. Yes, I’ll recommend it to my friends, even those who aren’t in official leadership positions.

If you’ve taken it Exit Icon, let me know what you thought by commenting on this blog.


June 15
TRACIE:  Your Gateway to Smarter Emergency Preparedness Information

Whether you work for a hospital, are part of a healthcare coalition, or are a healthcare provider, emergency manager or a public health practitioner, you are probably looking for a smarter way to keep the people who rely on you healthy, safe, and informed when disaster strikes. Finding information is easy – finding the right information can be a lot harder.

That’s where ASPR TRACIE comes in.

The ASPR Technical Resources Assistance Center and Information Exchange (ASPR TRACIE) is a new information gateway that connects public health and medical professionals with the emergency preparedness, response and recovery information that they need. ASPR TRACIE can help you quickly identify resources to get your planning started, build on the experience of your colleagues, prioritize activities for the future, make smart decisions, find training, and get answers to your questions.

ASPR TRACIE is divided into three main parts:

  • Technical Resources (TR): The technical resources section provides a collection of disaster, medical, healthcare and public health preparedness materials. This section includes a series of Topic Collections, which are annotated bibliographies vetted by experts in the field that highlight key resources under specific public health and medical topics. They include a short list of “Must Reads” as well as additional resources, such as studies, toolkits, lessons learned, planning guides, trainings and more. To go even more in depth on a topic, you can also search the ASPR TRACIE Resource Library, which includes the National Library of Medicine’s DisasterLitTM, a database of over 8,000 records from over 700 organizations.
  • Assistance Center (AC): Sometimes, you need a person to help – a person with the expertise to provide guidance, identify gaps and answer questions. ASPR TRACIE Technical Assistance specialists can help you navigate the research materials; find resources to support training and exercises; identify upcoming training and exercises; and more.
  • Information Exchange (IE): Working together, we can find better solutions than we do on our own. The Information Exchange provides discussion boards in a password protected environment. Users will be able to ask questions, discuss past experiences, and share plans and other resources.

Every disaster teaches us something new and disaster health is a complex, constantly evolving topic. Using ASPR TRACIE can help you and your organization plan for disasters more efficiently and effectively. To learn more about the resources that are available, check out the new ASPR TRACIE.

Do you have ideas on ways that we can make the site better, new topics that we could cover, or information that could help you plan, respond and recover? Please send us your ideas!

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June 05
How a Little Creativity Saved My Emergency Kit

In June 2012, a derecho was on its way to Virginia. I had never heard of a derecho, but I knew enough to heed the warnings I heard on the news. I needed to beef up my emergency kit, and – as with most things I have to do on my list – I was waiting until the last minute to do this.

My kit wasn’t completely lacking at the time. I had plenty of bottled water for everyone in the house, but my brother-in-law was visiting. We weren’t prepared for the extra body. I took inventory of everything else and learned that my spare batteries had been stolen from the kit by my daughter who used them for an experiment to learn if charging the dirt in a potted plant would make it grow faster and bigger. (It didn’t, FYI.)

So I grabbed my keys and headed out to the grocery store to see what supplies I could manage to find on such short notice. News outlets were reporting shortages of everything across the region. I had no luck at the two grocery stores near my house for either water or batteries. I had what I thought was a genius idea and walked across the parking lot to the Radio Shack to see if I my luck would improve. Apparently there were a lot of geniuses in the parking lot that day.

I was starting to get frustrated, and standing in the parking lot wasn’t getting me anywhere. As I stared blindly across the street trying to figure out my next move, I realized I was staring at a store whose entire inventory ran on batteries. A store that sold batteries to go with said inventory to ensure its customers could avoid temper tantrums later. A giant toy store!

I walked into the store and was immediately rewarded for my creativity. There next to the checkout aisle stood an entire wall – floor to ceiling – of glorious black and gold batteries. I wanted to cry. I grabbed what I needed, checked out, and then immediately posted to my social networks where my local friends could find this rare commodity.

Inspired by my creativity and luck, I started thinking about how to solve my bottled water problem. I thought back to a recent snowstorm that left the stores out of milk and the good luck I had finding it at a gas station. Yes, it was priced higher than the grocery store, but I was going to have milk. So I headed over to the gas station, and EUREKA! there was water. Smaller bottles instead of gallons, and at a much higher price, but there was water.

There are two morals to this story. The first is to make sure your emergency kit is always well stocked. It’s important to check this when the skies are clear, and there is no disaster in sight. After this event, I set up a quarterly task in my productivity app to do just this. The other is that no matter how much you might try to prepare for a disaster or bad weather, sometimes what you have is just not enough. Having a houseguest made it necessary to ensure we had more supplies on hand. Our “Plus 1” rule for our emergency kit means we have enough for every member of our family – plus one.

When disaster strikes, many people find that their plans have gaps or their kits are short a few critical items. If this ever happens to you, don’t panic.  Instead, focus on what you do have, be prepared to get creative, and remember that there’s probably more than one place to get the things you need.  

May 29
Individual and Community Resilience Factors Influence Psychological Resilience After Hurricane Sandy

We know that people react differently to disasters psychologically – some bounce back quickly while others report serious symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder or major depressive disorder. The ability to bounce back from a disaster and sustain low levels of psychological symptoms over time is called psychological resilience. We also know that psychological resilience is important for individuals and communities, but we really don’t know much about the community factors that support psychological resilience, since few studies have been conducted on this topic.

To help fill this gap, ASPR awarded a research grant to Boston University that was aimed at better understanding the individual and community level factors that influence mental health after a large scale disaster. Specifically, the study looked at individual factors, such as gender, socioeconomic status and past exposure to stressful events from a representative sample of residents in the New York City neighborhoods that were most severely affected by Hurricane Sandy. The study also examined the impact that the interaction between individual factors and the resources of the community have on overall psychological resilience.

Some of the study’s findings were as anticipated, but others were definitely a surprise to the researchers. For example, the researchers expected to find that residents of communities with more people living by themselves had lower levels of psychological resilience – but that wasn’t what they found. Turns out, residents of communities with more people living by themselves actually experienced higher levels of psychological resilience. Researchers aren’t sure why this is the case, but some possible reasons include:

  • Higher Social Capital:  A community with more people living alone could actually have higher levels of social capital during disasters. Residents might have more connections with friends and family in other neighborhoods and could have called upon them for assistance during Sandy.
  • Economic Resources:  Communities with more residents living alone in New York City also may have more economic resources that, in turn, could protect against post-traumatic stress.
  • Lower Exposure:  Researchers noted that the neighborhoods with the lowest percentages of residents living alone were concentrated in areas that were the least exposed to Hurricane Sandy, including Midtown Manhattan. Lower exposure could foster community resilience.

The study looked at other individual and community level factors as well.

For example, the study concluded that communities with higher median household incomes did not have lower levels of depression overall. However, living in a higher-income community was associated with lower depression for study participants who had not experienced stressors, like displacement, loss of power, financial loss or property damage.

The study’s findings built on prior research and confirmed some existing findings. Levels of psychological resilience are higher among men, people with a higher socioeconomic status, and those who had been exposed to fewer stressful events.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the ways individual and community factors predict psychological resilience and we need more research in this area. Additional research could help promote mental health in communities affected by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters. But this study has helped us better understand a topic that could help public health and emergency management professionals work more effectively with their communities.

To learn more, check out the full results of this study, Psychological Resilience after Hurricane Sandy: The Influence of Individual- and Community-Level Factors on Mental Health after a Large-Scale Natural Disaster Exit Icon.

This research project is part of a larger series of ASPR Grants that support scientific research and related to Hurricane Sandy Recovery. ASPR’s Sandy recovery science researchers are working on projects that could shed light on how Hurricane Sandy impacted individual and community resilience, the health system response and healthcare access, and mental health outcomes. The more that we learn about the factors that impact disaster recovery, the better equipped we will be to make informed decisions when seconds count or even for years after the disaster.

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May 27
“Get into the Act” for Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery

When a disaster strikes, individuals and communities feel the impact – but they don’t all feel it the same way. Disasters can be particularly hard for older adults and can make existing health conditions, from diabetes to dementia, harder to manage. On the other hand, older adults may also have long-lasting friendships, experience and skills that they can use to help themselves and their communities.

Older Americans are important parts of communities across the country. In fact, there will be about 72.1 million older people living in the United States by 2030-- more than twice the number of older adults at the beginning of this century. As Older Americans Month comes to a close, it is a great time to reflect on this year’s theme and “get into the act.” As individuals, older Americans can take the critical steps needed to plan for their health needs in a disaster and stay safe. As a caregivers, public health or medical professionals, and as a community, we can focus on better planning for the needs of older Americans so that we are ready when disaster strikes.

Disasters pose special challenges to many older Americans and their caregivers. Chronic conditions that exist prior to an emergency can be exacerbated, equipment damaged or lost, and services or treatments interrupted. These challenges can result in additional harm or stress, particularly for older adults residing in long-term care facilities or nursing homes.

According to 2012 study titled The Effects of Evacuation on Nursing Home Residents with Dementia, residents faced increased risk for adverse outcomes (e.g., morbidity, mortality, and hospitalization) due to health conditions made worse by disaster-related activities such as evacuation and distribution of daily routines. The study also found that residents with severe cognitive impairment who are evacuated were at increased risk of death even at 30 and 90 days post-evacuation. This research illustrates the need to develop policies, programs, and trainings for long-term care providers, clinicians, public health officials, and emergency responders to better prepare for and respond to the specific needs of older adults in these communities.

Also published in 2012, a report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reinforces the need for tailored preparedness plans for residents of nursing homes. The nationwide study found that while most nursing homes met Federal requirements for written emergency plans and preparedness training, there are still many gaps. These gaps included emergency plans lacking relevant information and the lack of collaboration between nursing homes and local emergency management.

A whole community approach to disaster and emergency preparedness, response, and recovery activities requires integrating the access and functional needs of everyone, including older adults living independently in the community and those living in supportive long-term care settings. By utilizing this approach, public health officials and emergency managers can effectively meet the needs of the older adults, wherever they might live, by engaging and coordinating with key stakeholders such as local Area Agencies on Aging, senior centers, volunteer organizations, retirement communities, home health associations, and long-term care providers.

For more information on preparedness planning for older adults, check out the following resources:

This year’s theme for Older Americans Month, “Get into the Act,” also serves as a strong reminder that many older adults can be assets in times of a disaster or emergency. Drawing from their prior experience, expertise, and mental resilience, many older adults have the capacity to survive and help others. They are important parts of our communities and many of them volunteer with organizations like the Medical Reserve Corps to help their communities become more resilient.

Successful disaster preparedness requires both building on the resilience of older adults and developing and maintaining local planning and coordination efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of older adults during times of disaster. By planning and working together as a community, we can better protect health and save lives during disasters and every day.

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