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The Great Thaw: looking back on Boston’s record-breaking winter

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Boston duck statues in the snow

Four winter storms, more than 108 inches of snow, and one record-breaking season later, Boston is ready for spring! Despite the promise of warmer temperatures, the slowly melting snow is a reminder of the emergency response and community resilience that Boston has demonstrated these past few months.

Key components of Boston’s emergency response to these winter storms were well-established partnerships and strong community resilience. The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) is one of the leaders in establishing these relationships. The BPHC plays a crucial role in the city’s public health preparedness and response; it is tasked with the mission of protecting, preserving, and promoting the health and well-being of all Boston residents, particularly the most vulnerable.

Boston Public Health Commission employee working in the City of Boston the Medical Intelligence Center during the 2015 winter storms.
Boston Public Health Commission employee working at the City of Boston the Medical Intelligence Center.

“I would say the most important work that can be done before a disaster is relationship building,” said Atyia Martin, the director of the BPHC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness. “Building relationships with organizations that are the trusted resource in their communities is key to reaching people we wouldn’t normally reach.” For Martin and the BPHC this relationship building begins long before a disaster strikes.

Through multiple public health campaigns, training programs, and community outreach efforts, the BPHC strives to establish strong relationships with city agencies, the private sector, and civic and community organizations. When it came to responding to this past winter’s storms, these partnerships were a crucial resource. The BPHC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness had personnel staffed at the City of Boston’s Emergency Operation Center, worked closely with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and activated their Medical Intelligence Center to help coordinate the response of public services for those with the most urgent need.

Because of their established relationships with both healthcare facilities and city agencies, the BPHC was able to ensure that travel routes to and from healthcare facilities were prioritized in the plowing of roads, and that essential healthcare personnel were able to get to work. Additionally, the BPHC’s well-established relationships with many of the homeless services and community resources providers played a huge role in helping to coordinate efforts to ensure that facilities serving this vulnerable population could get the resources they needed.

Image of a social media post from Boston Public Health Commission about winter storm safetyBeyond the logistical coordination that strong partnerships can provide, the BPHC demonstrated that trusted relationships are crucial to communication activities. “We are always pushing out information before and during a storm like we did this winter,” said Martin, “and what makes these messages effective is that we have established, trusted communication sources that deliver them in a timely manner.”

The BPHC’s Health Resilience Network is an alert system that operates through a partnership for inclusive emergency communication, in which organizations subscribe to emergency alerts and disseminate these alerts to their staff or members. Additionally, the BPHC utilized audience-specific messaging channels to pass important information to target groups. Through the “Next Door” social media platform the BPHC was able to send out messages targeted to specific geographic locations with information that applied directly to that population. This resource also facilitated organic conversations from the community that helped spread information about available resources and location-specific hazards.

Martin believes that communities should be encouraged to unite in preparation and in recovery. “When it comes to recovering from a disaster, it is the communities that are united and prepared to be self-resilient that do best,” said Martin. “That is why at the BPHC we are always working to promote a culture of community resilience.” Social connectedness within the community, even just among neighbors, is a crucial component of emergency preparedness and response.

Head shot of Atyia Martin
Atyia Martin, director of the BPHC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness

An essential part of Boston’s winter response was its citizens—the individuals who showed up with shovels and snow blowers to help clear a neighbor’s sidewalk, or dig out a fire hydrant. The BPHC’s over 900 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers also played a larger role in the community response. These volunteers live in neighborhoods throughout the city and were sent to check on elderly neighbors and provide additional response services that they had learned from their BPHC training, provided by the DelValle Institute for Emergency Preparedness.

While Boston’s great thaw continues, the BPHC remains hard at work communicating important recovery messages. The Commission is continuously creating and building upon key community partnerships, which it knows will help ensure that more and more of Boston is ready, safe, and healthy, for whatever comes the city’s way.

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