With California communities facing an increasing range of disasters in recent years from fire to flood and more, communicating emergency warnings to the populace has become an even more essential public service.
Unfortunately, studies have shown the state’s linguistically diverse population doesn’t always get, or understand, those warnings.
That’s why Cupertino, CA, Emergency Management Analyst and recent Center for Homeland Defense and Security Emergence Program graduate Meredith Albert (Emergence cohort 2201) decided to address this challenge in her Emergence change initiative project.
Her initiative aims to develop a process for the San Francisco Bay Area city’s emergency managers to disseminate critical emergency information in languages spoken by non-English speaking or limited English proficiency populations.
Even generally wealthy, highly educated communities like hers, where many people are employed by Apple and other tech companies, have residents who speak another language at home.
“There are always people who don’t get the [emergency] message,” Albert said, pointing to data that shows more than 60 percent of her city’s population speaks a language other than English at home and that a large portion of those people may not receive emergency information, as a result. “We’re in a transition point as a country where we’re realizing many people are not getting the message. Access to information is critical for emergency preparedness, emergency response, and recovery. We want to be sure everyone has the same shot at being prepared.”
Albert said she’s working as part of a team of three in the city’s Office of Emergency Management on developing a multilingual emergency message outreach program focusing on several of the most common languages spoken in the city other than English including Mandarin, Spanish, and Hindi, among others.
In all, Albert said, there are more than a dozen different languages spoken in the city other than English. She said the team is working on disseminating its emergency messaging, including links to public safety information sites, to its pool of 700 community volunteers and asking for translation into various languages, and collecting data on the level of response.
“Communities that are better informed and have equitable access to public information about disasters are more resilient.”– Meredith Albert
So far, Albert said the effort is gaining response despite the challenge inherent in the request. She said the effort is adapting the King County, WA, model, which uses community volunteers to share emergency messaging in over 20 different languages.
The next step, Albert said, is to present a formal policy proposal to city leadership and engage critical volunteers to gain official support and funding.
“Communities that are better informed and have equitable access to public information about disasters are more resilient,” Albert said, adding that “providing emergency information in languages spoken by the community represents a step toward equity in the service provided to the whole community” and addresses requirements of recently adopted state emergency management legislation (Senate Bill 160).
Albert said she had support to develop the ambitious translation project for CHDS and the Emergence Program from CHDS alum and Cupertino City Emergency Manager, Thomas Chin (Master’s Program cohort 2105/2106). She said her CHDS Emergence experience “came at a critical time for me personally and professionally,” and ultimately “reaffirmed my faith in public service.”
“It was really cool to see people from different agencies and political persuasions translate policy into actionable solutions,” she said. “Seeing how everyone responds to challenges is inspirational. Meeting these emerging leaders highlighted something very special about the rank and file of our government.”