Community Health Centers:  A Missing Piece In the Emergency Management Puzzle

Community Health Centers: A Missing Piece In the Emergency Management Puzzle

Weaving through public health and healthcare preparedness policies, deliverables, and other tasks can be tough.  Every few years ideas, objectives and outcomes alter our current path and set us on a new one with new partners.  A few years ago, our path changed from targeted specific goals, such as mass prophylaxis to more broad and inclusive goals like coalition building and community resiliency.  As we are building our own healthcare coalitions, we have to be cognizant of who we have at our planning table, what their capabilities are, AND what their limitations are.  We also have to look back to our Capabilities Guidance Documents and see if we are including everyone, such as community health centers.  Often times, community health centers are left out of the puzzle but they can be an essential part of emergency response, not as a first responder but as the front line source of care.

Community health centers have the ability to serve patients during an emergency, which can alleviate the strain on the first responders, allowing them to focus on life safety initiatives.  Picture this:  A train derailment has just occurred.  Police, fire, and EMS are on the scene of the incident responding to what has happened.  People all around are flooding the hospitals to receive treatment; many of which will be the walking wounded.  Not that their concerns are not valid, the bottom line is that they are filling up beds that could be used for more urgent patients--patients in a critical status.  Community health centers in the area could help alleviate the surge by treating the walking wounded at their clinics.  Chances are, they are already a patient.

So what is a community health center? AND How do I know if I have one?

As defined by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Community, Migrant and Public Housing Health Centers are community-based and patient-directed organizations that serve populations with limited access to health care.  Also known as Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), community health centers were created by Congress to meet the health care needs of underserved communities and high-risk patients, regardless of their ability to pay.  They are located across the nation and are typically located in areas that have been designated as having a shortage of medical providers who serve "medically underserved" patients (low-income, uninsured, homeless, affected by HIV/AIDS, struggling with substance abuse and/or have special needs).  2012 data hows that Community Health Centers served over 21 MILLION PATIENTS nationwide.

Each Community Health Center will be:

  • Located in or serve a high need community (designated Medically Underserved Area or Population).
  • Governed by a community board composed of a majority (51% or more) of health center patients who represent the population served.
  • Provide comprehensive primary health care services, as well as supportive services (education, translation, transportation, etc.) that promote access to health care.
  • Provide services, available to all, with fees adjusted based on ability to pay.
  • Meet other performance and accountability requirements, regarding administrative, clinical, and financial operations.


Did you know that Community Health Centers have already been preparing for emergency response for the past 10 years?  In a compendium recently developed by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) titled, "Health Centers - Assistance Before, During, and After Emergencies and Disasters.", they state that out of all the Community Health Centers nationwide (1100+ organizations with 8000+ clinics):

  • 100% have Emergency Operations Plans (EOP).
  • 83% have Hazard Vulnerability Analyses (HVA).
  • 83% have taken basic emergency management training.
  • 83% have participated in an emergency preparedness drill.
  • 67% have Incident Command System (ICS) Job Action Sheets.
  • 50% have emergency preparedness planning teams.
  • 50% receive funding and resources from the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Hospital Preparedness Program (HPP).


This paper also highlights how Community Health Centers across the nation have assisted their communities before, during, and after emergencies and disasters.  If we re-cap the main disasters throughout the last six years, you will see that Community Health Centers have been there, assisting and working in the response where it was needed:

  • California:  Lessons Learned from the 2011 Windstorm
  • California/Colorado:  Strengthening Wildfire Response through Integrated Partnerships
  • Connecticut:  The Coordination of Behavioral Health Needs After a Mass Shooting
  • District of Columbia:  Healthcare Preparedness during H1N1
  • Iowa:  The Utilization of Mobile Medical Assets after the 2008 Flood
  • Massachusetts:  Community Recovery after the 2010 Earthquake
  • Mississippi/Missouri:  Medical Surge Following the 2011 Tornadoes
  • New Jersey/New York:  Mass Care Outreach after Hurricane Sandy

Community Health Centers are "in" with their communities.  They have already built relationships with community members, and they are trusted.  In a sense, they are "community pillars" and "community champions."  Simply put, Community Health Centers are trusted by, vested in, and integrated into their communities and will be valuable partners to have, especially in emergency response.  While it is different for every community, the response dynamics will depend on what your need is and where the Community Health Center can help.  They are just one more piece to be included into the massive puzzle of emergency response.  Contact your state primary care association to find a Community Health Center in your area.  At a National level, you can go to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) to find your state Primary Care Association (PCA).  Your state PCA can help you find the closest Community Health Center near you and assist you with your emergency preparedness initiatives.  For Illinois, you can go to the Illinois Primary Health Care Association (IPHCA) Emergency Preparedness website.



"It's not about who does it's about how we work together."


―Lynn Chawatsky, Vice President of Outreach Initiatives and Partners, Sesame Street



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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