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Ref: PA community-based preparedness program lauded for best public engagement

Pittsburgh Live

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Allegheny County's emergency efforts national model of preparedness

By Allison M. Heinrichs
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

With African drums beating, Allegheny County emergency officials took the stage and explained disaster preparedness plans to members of the Healthy Black Family Project.
With that one meeting two years ago, they gained the trust of the 300 people there and the ability to spread emergency information to 6,000 more with a single phone call.

"It was a smashing success," said Stephen Thomas, director of the Center for Minority Health at the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

That meeting is praised today in a national report on preparing for public health emergencies, such as an influenza pandemic, written by UPMC's Center for Biosecurity.

The federally sponsored report emphasizes the importance of engaging neighborhood associations, faith groups, ethnic centers and other community organizations. It will be distributed to city and state officials across the country.
The report can be viewed at

"Many years post-9/11, there's a call for enhanced citizen preparedness, and national polls continue to say Americans aren't prepared," said Monica Schoch-Spana, who wrote the report and is a senior associate at the Baltimore-based biosecurity center.

Health and emergency preparedness experts across the country collaborated on the 25-page report, which draws on more than 100 emergency preparedness studies and articles.

Key findings:

* The public can effectively conduct search and rescue activities, provide medical aid and operate mass vaccination clinics in an emergency.

* Social networks that help people provide and receive help are more critical to surviving a disaster than basement stockpiles of canned goods.

* Disaster preparedness plans are better communicated through community organizations -- such as neighborhood associations and faith groups -- than mass education efforts directed at the public.

* People are more likely to comply with emergency directions that come through a community organization to which they belong than from public officials.

Community involvement is the basis of the Allegheny County Health Department's Medical Reserve Corps, which serves the 12-county region. It consists of almost 400 volunteers trained to help provide medical care in their community if hospitals become overwhelmed, said Ed Schwartz, who organizes the corps.

"If there is a man-made disaster or a natural disaster and the medical system gets overwhelmed, we have a database of people capable of helping," Schwartz said.

If a community group is not aware of emergency plans, it should be pro-active, Schoch-Spana said.

"Civic groups can call up their local hospitals and say, 'Do you have a pandemic flu contingency plan and would you like any input? ... Can my organization and I help you? '" she said.

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