Whole Community Preparedness:  Understanding Actual Needs

Whole Community Preparedness: Understanding Actual Needs

Preparedness planning has moved in a new direction.  There are no more "Silos" and no more solo teams.  Now, we are all charged with working together in a coalition to prepare and respond to public health and medical emergencies.  This is the Whole Community Approach concept that was developed by FEMA in 2011.  It's an all hazards/whole community way of thinking for emergency management.  It allows the responders to partner with all their stakeholders and the general public to understand and assess the needs of their community to build a disaster-resilient community.  The concept has three main principles, as well as six strategies and pathways for action.  The pathways are ideas and recommendations that were collected by FEMA from all sectors of the United States to help us think about ways to establish or broaden the Whole Community concept in our jurisdiction (Read FEMA's Whole Community Approach guide here.).  Today, I will discuss one of the pathways called Understanding Actual Needs.

Understanding Actual Needs
The first step in any planning is to conduct background research.  We do this in emergency management planning, continuity of operations planning, coalition building, and with all preparedness programs targeted towards specific groups.  Community planning research will tell you what has been done before, why it worked or didn't, and past lessons learned from previous disasters.  This will lead to a deeper understanding of the many needs of your community.  You will have a better understanding of the different types of populations, community norms, structures, networks, and relationships.  As stated in my previous article, Whole Community Approach:  Defining the Concept before Taking Action, "The more we know about our communities, the better we can understand their real-life safety and sustaining needs and their motivations to participate in emergency management-related activities prior to an event."

You can gather data about your community from a variety of assessments.  Many public health departments have to conduct a community health assessment every few years.  A community health assessment is a detailed examination of the health status indicators for a given population that is used to identify key problems in a community.  The ultimate goal of this kind of study, which is sometimes called a community diagnosis, is to develop strategies to address local health needs (University of North Carolina, Health Sciences Library, Community Health Assessment Basics).  You can also look to your Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPC), hospitals, and Emergency Management Agencies for a hazard vulnerability and county assessments that may have been conducted.  You don't always have to start from scratch.  Sometimes, it is best to start with what is out there and expand on the information that you need more clarification on or on items that are missing.  FEMA's Whole Community Approach guidance suggests that you:

  • Implement cultural competency interventions with coalition members and emergency management staff.
  • Establish a relationship with a multilingual volunteer to help interact with various groups.
  • Develop population-specific strategies to reach community members and engage them on issues important to them.
  • Know the languages and communication methods and traditions in the community.  Learn and understand how different populations communicate and how they exchange their information.  Identify which sources they trust.
  • Learn where the REAL conversations and decisions are made.  They are not always made at city hall, but sometimes, they are at different venues, such as the community center or places of worship.
  • Look for opportunities to engage community members at different public meetings.  For example, the Home Owners Association or local housing authority may have insight on current community issues and concerns.  They may also have suggestions on how to reach and disseminate public information during an emergency.
  • Develop a broad base of relationships with all sectors of your community.  Tap into groups and organizations that have already established trust in the community and can act as liaisons between them and the coalition.  This will open up more relationships and communication channels.

As you work towards implementing the Whole Community Approach concepts, it is important to remember that one size doesn't fit all.  No one needs to reinvent the wheel, but we do have to tailor templates and properly assess our community's needs for successful planning.  Strategies that work for one community will not work for others, and what may work in big cities will most certainly not work in a small rural town.  Take the tips and ideas shared above, and make them your own as you plan.  Remember the goal:  Bridge the Gaps to build a strong foundation for greater community resiliency.




Resources & References:
*A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action, FDOC 104-008-1/December, 2011


About Tsoetsy
Tsoetsy, pronounced Cho-Chee, is an Independent Consultant whose focus is in emergency planning, with specialized training in public information and exercise design.  Tsoetsy has worked with public health departments and Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)/Community Health Centers (CHCs).  Her vision is to bridge the gaps in preparedness planning by fostering relationships, streamlining processes, providing clear public communication, training, and exercising.  Her motto is "Prepare, Practice, Play!"  Tsoetsy can be reached at or on LinkedIn.

Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP

Tsoetsy Harris, MPH, MEP

Independent Consultant

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