Why It’s Important to Prepare for Emergencies

If disaster strikes, will my family and I be safe? Who will help? What can I do?

These are the questions we may ask when witnessing major emergencies such as natural disasters, severe storms, infectious-disease epidemics, or intentional or accidental man-made disasters such as terrorist acts or hazardous spills. The vivid images and memories from 9/11, Katrina, and Haiti, as well as the disruptions caused by the recent H1N1 flu epidemic, show just how significant these events can be and how much they can affect public health and safety.

Responding to emergencies can be an enormous challenge for public officials, health providers, and private citizens alike, requiring vast resources and involving thousands of individuals. But it’s critical to remember that preparing for emergencies before they occur can limit the damage caused by the event. Now is the time for all of us to remember both how important it is to be prepared for disasters and also how much we can help each other.

So, exactly who does what? And how can citizens get involved? Here’s a primer.

At the local level (and all operations depend on the local response first), your fire department, police department, emergency medical services provider, public health department, and other local government representatives work together to identify the extent of the disaster, respond as much as possible to calls about threats to personal safety and health, and maintain order. Emergency managers help coordinate the efforts of the local responders. Hospitals and health professionals coordinate with their local health department or local emergency manager.

States have agencies that specialize in managing disasters, and in the Commonwealth it’s the Mass. Emergency Management Agency. MEMA works with local emergency managers, other state agencies, private organizations, and the federal government to help residents respond to and recover from disasters.

For health and medical concerns, the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) takes the lead to work with health providers to plan for and respond to emergencies. DPH also oversees two systems that manage volunteer efforts and are critical to the state’s emergency-response efforts. The Mass. System for Advanced Registration is a program that recruits and pre-registers licensed health care professionals — physicians, nurses, and others — to ensure they can be used to help in emergencies. In addition, DPH coordinates more than 40 Medical Reserve Corps, which are locally based volunteer units across the state that stand ready to help in events ranging from flu clinics and health fairs to severe storms and disasters.

Nationally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency supports citizens and first responders, coordinating the federal response by working with more than two dozen partners and nonprofit agencies to provide emergency food and water, medical supplies and services, search and rescue operations, transportation assistance, and environmental assessment. FEMA also oversees nearly 2,500 Citizen Corps Councils across the U.S.; these comprise a network of volunteers willing to be part of preparedness and response efforts. Also at the national level, the National Disaster Medical System is led by the Department of Health and Human Services, partnering with FEMA, the Department of Defense, and the Veterans Administration along with public and private hospitals across the U.S. to provide emergency medical care following major disasters.

Citizens can play dual roles in emergency preparedness.

First, we should all prepare now for emergencies by establishing our own personal preparedness plans, assembling disaster-supply kits, and making a family communications plan. Although this might seem hard, it isn’t. Simple worksheets on how to accomplish these tasks are available at www.ready.gov (which offers information in 12 languages besides English) or at www.mass.gov/mema.

Second, we all have the opportunity to become an important part of response efforts by volunteering for a Medical Reserve Corps (MRC). Medical and non-medical personnel with a variety of skills are needed to play key roles at the local level in responding to emergencies or to help with flu clinics or health educational efforts. Training is provided for all volunteers. Starting this year, the state has established a new partnership, Mass Responds, to integrate local, regional, and statewide volunteer resources. To enroll, visit www.maresponds.org.

Dr. Paul Biddinger is chairman of the Mass. Medical Society’s Committee on Preparedness and director of Pre-Hospital Care and Disaster Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. This article is a service of the Mass. Medical Society.

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