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Wildfire Crisis in Washington State Highlights the Need for Emergency Communications with Immigrant and Refugee Communities

Posted by on February 8th, 2016 Posted in: Emergency Preparedness, News From NNLM PNR

The Washington State Coalition for Language Access (WASCLA), which works to promote collaborations to ensure language access for Limited English Proficient individuals in Washington State, received a PNR Professional Development Award. The purpose of the award was to support a presentation stressing the importance of language in emergency communications, such as wildfires, at the 2015 WASCLA Summit. Here is their report.

The unusually hot and dry summer of in the entire Pacific Northwest 2015 will go down in the record books for several reasons, from its early start in June, to the number and intensity of wildfires it triggered mostly in the Central part of Washington. Just like in the 2014 fire season, many of this year’s fires occurred on forest and agricultural lands located in and around the areas known as Washington’s 10 Latino counties — Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Okanogan, Skagit, Walla Walla, and Yakima—where Latinos are a large part of the population, and the majority in two counties (Adams and Franklin). Language assistance needs in the impacted areas were critical: while the average LEP rate in Washington is close to 9%, current data shows that among Spanish-speaking residents, rates of limited English proficiency range from 13-50% or more. Communication needs in these areas were not limited only to Spanish: increasing numbers of area residents speak only indigenous languages of the Americas, plus there are contingents of seasonal guest workers from various countries including those in Africa and Asia. As a result of the situation, the Washington State Coalition for Language Access (WASCLA) soon became aware that there was no dedicated plan in place at the state level to meet the communication needs of the significant population with limited English proficiency (LEP) during emergencies.

While we responded to requests for help relating to securing needed language services in the moment, we also were actively considering the bigger picture long-range. Our upcoming Language Access Summit in October would offer an ideal opportunity to focus on the issue of emergency communications, a new topic for us.

But we were faced with some obstacles of our own: very short turn-around time to organize and very limited resources linked to our status as an all-volunteer-run organization. This is where our involvement in the NN/LM-PNR came in. In addition to being familiar with some of the work being done nationally in the field, I had also attended the 2013 Disaster Summit: Magnitude 9 Cascadia Earthquake in the Pacific Northwest sponsored by NN/LM-PNW, so knew of NLM’s interest in the topic.

We also knew that our constituents needed training on best practices in emergency communication services for immigrant and refugee communities, and we knew where to find it: from ECHO (Emergency and Community Health Outreach) a pioneering organization in Minnesota . ECHO offers culturally appropriate multilingual alerts and notices in multi-media formats, across their state and collaborates with governmental agencies. The sticking point for WASCLA was the cost of bringing a trainer here. Lillian McDonald, Executive Director of ECHO agreed to present if we could cover the travel expenses. Knowing that NN/LM-PNW offered professional development awards to network member groups, as WASCLA had received one 2011 to attend the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Seattle, I quickly contacted the PNW office, and learned that bringing a trainer to our group also qualified as a professional development activity. Our request was approved, and on October 16, Ms. McDonald gave a lively and inspirational talk about how ECHO mobilized to meet unmet needs, drawing from her own media background , the activism of community leaders, and support from the public broadcasting sector, to create a vital service in their state. Today ECHO not only offers multilingual emergency alerts and emergency preparedness and responses, but also offers health , civic, and English-literacy educational programming.   We are just getting started with addressing the emergency communication LEP issues here in Washington, and will launch a dedicate workgroup in the new year. We have learned that it is very difficult to find support for health equity work, and literally could not have accomplished much of what we do without the help of NN/LN-PNW.

To join our community and receive notices from WASCLA, please send an email to: wascla.lep@gmail.com

Image of the author ABOUT Patricia Devine
Medical Librarian, Network Outreach Coordinator, NN/LM, PNR. I work for a network of libraries and organizations with an interest in health information.

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Developed resources reported in this program are supported by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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