Risk Communication: Plan with the Whole Community

Posted on by Brenda Silverman, MS, PhD, Health Scientist, Division of State and Local Readiness, Center for Preparedness and Response

During a disaster, communication becomes especially critical. Language, accessibility, or other barriers can affect many individuals’ ability to receive, understand, and act on emergency information.

The ability of a community to communicate accurate emergency information, alerts, warnings, and notifications saves lives. Timely and effective messages can inform people on actions to stay safe, take shelter, or evacuate.

What is in the messages and who communicates them to the community is an important element of risk communication.

Why It Matters

There is widespread evidence that emergencies disproportionately impact individuals with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.

The term “access and functional needs” refers to individuals with and without disabilities, who may need additional assistance because of any temporary or permanent condition. That condition may limit their ability to act in an emergency. Individuals with access and functional needs do not require any kind of diagnosis or specific evaluation. These may include but are not limited to

  • individuals with disabilities,
  • individuals with limited English proficiency,
  • individuals with limited access to transportation,
  • individuals with limited access to financial resources,
  • older adults, and
  • others deemed “at risk” by the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act (PAHPAIA) or the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

FEMA’s whole community approach promotes community participation in emergency planning, response, recovery, and mitigation activities. Integrating community partners into the emergency planning process can help planners better understand and address the needs of the community. These stakeholders should be included in the development of risk communication messages to ensure they are accessible, understandable, and actionable.

Emergency Planning Can Save Lives

During widespread evacuations, transportation systems may be overwhelmed. Understanding the transportation needs of the whole community ahead of an incident will help identify key partners and prioritize communication. Community partners can help widely disseminate messaging to the populations they serve on actions for how to stay safe.

Parents drop off their kids at schools every day assuming they will come home within roughly 8 hours. Yet, in 2014, many Atlanta parents experienced a disaster they never would have predicted.

Icy conditions created by a winter storm paralyzed traffic just as schools were closing. Thousands of children were stranded at schools and on buses. Some children were rescued by firefighters and the National Guard after many cold and hungry hours on buses.

More than 2,000 children spent the night at schools across the metro area.

Some parents spent hours behind the wheel trying to get to their children. Others walked miles through the snow to reunite with children.

Research indicates that over one-third of American households with children are not familiar with their school’s emergency plans. Even more do not know where schools would evacuate their children to during a disaster.

Emergency action plans help everyone know what to do, who to call, and where to reunite in a disaster.

A New CDC Resource for Emergency Planners

CDC developed a toolkit to help emergency planners, such as those for school districts, develop communication plans that consider the needs of people with disabilities and others with access and functional needs.

The Access and Functional Needs Toolkit is organized in two sections. Section 1 provides examples of groups who may be at greater risk or disproportionately affected in an emergency. This section includes noteworthy practices, key considerations, tips, and resources for effective communication with these groups.

A second section outlines a process and recommended action steps to integrate a network of community partners into risk communication strategies. It provides customizable tools and instructions, templates, worksheets, and noteworthy partner engagement practices. The resources can help create documentation to institutionalize partner engagement practices and identify areas for improvement.

Government agencies and community organizations can use the toolkit’s worksheets and templates to guide their emergency plans and communication strategies.


Thanks in advance for your questions and comments on this Public Health Matters post. Please note that CDC does not give personal medical advice. If you are concerned you have a disease or condition, talk to your doctor.

Have a question for CDC? CDC-INFO (http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/index.html) offers live agents by phone and email to help you find the latest, reliable, and science-based health information on more than 750 health topics.

Posted on by Brenda Silverman, MS, PhD, Health Scientist, Division of State and Local Readiness, Center for Preparedness and ResponseTags , , , , , ,

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Page last reviewed: September 16, 2021
Page last updated: September 16, 2021