New CDC Document Offers Emergency Managers Guidance for Identifying and Engaging At-Risk Groups

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When preparing for an emergency, responders aim to be able to reach every person in a community. Emergency managers must be able to quickly get information to all community members- even the hardest to reach. Emergency managers need to know in advance which groups are at greatest risk of harm during an emergency, where the people in these groups live and work, and the best ways at-risk populations receive information.

“During many disasters, we’ve seen that at-risk groups are more likely to be more adversely affected,” notes CDR Sherry Burrer, a Commissioned Corps officer in CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and co-author of the guidance document. CDR Burrer has seen first-hand these issues as a team member of many CDC responses. For example, compared to the rest of the population during Hurricane Sandy, residents who were not mobile due to disability or lack of personally owned transportation were in some cases unable to evacuate when it was recommended to do so.   A new publication is now available to help address these issues.

Publication stems from CDC’s real world experiences

During emergency epi investigations, Epi-Aid teams readily see that “often at-risk groups of people have a limited capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from a disaster event,” CDR Burrer said. “The result can be a lot of pain, loss, and suffering that could be avoided or abated with better focus in advance on those most vulnerable.” For example, if residents who were not mobile could have been located and reached through use of the SVI tool and COINs, additional outreach and advanced planning might have resulted in a more complete evacuation of dangerous evacauation zones during Hurricaine Sandy.

Dr. Sherry Burrer has first-hand experience in disaster response and preparedness.
Dr. Sherry Burrer has first-hand experience in disaster response and preparedness.

To help emergency managers identify and engage at-risk groups, NCEH has released a new guidance document: Planning for an Emergency: Strategies for Identifying and Engaging At-Risk Groups: A Guidance Document for Emergency Manager . The document describes three approaches to identify at-risk populations. The goal is to help to decrease the adverse health effects of disaster on at-risk groups. The approaches are:

  • Individual: This approach collects and uses information from at-risk groups at the individual level. This section is based on Public Health Workbook to Define, Locate, and Reach Special, Vulnerable, and At-risk Populations in an Emergency, a document produced by CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response. The section contains information on Community Outreach Information Networks (COIN) and registries.
  • Population: This approach collects and uses population-level information from the U.S. Census. This section includes an introduction to CDC/ATSDR’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI) tool. The SVI tool uses U.S. Census data and mapping software to identify the location of at-risk populations.
  • Integration of Data: This section provides guidance on how to integrate data from both approaches to improve communication plans, identify gaps in preparedness, and develop a comprehensive picture of at-risk groups.

We encourage public health practitioners to share this new publication with the emergency managers in their jurisdictions. It can be a way to begin collaboration and gain a better understanding of how emergency management and public health can support each other’s roles in disaster events.

To learn more, contact Dr. Burrer at You can contact the Health Studies Branch at this address: CDC Health Studies Branch, 4770 Buford Highway, MS F-60, Chamblee, GA. Phone: 770-488-3410.

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Page last reviewed: October 8, 2015
Page last updated: October 8, 2015