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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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What would you do if you knew?

Author: Kristen P. Finne, Senior Policy Analyst, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Published Date: 7/16/2015 11:23:00 AM
Category: Hospital Preparedness; Public Health Preparedness; Response & Recovery; Innovations;

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 empower@hhs.gov.

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