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  • Writer's pictureShawna Bruce

Creating a Community Outreach Information Network (COIN) to reach vulnerable groups in disasters

Watching Hurricane Laura's impacts along the Gulf Coast was a frightening reminder of the critical role public information plays during a disaster. Officials recommended that evacuees move to hotels to enable them to self-isolate, leaving those without the financial means to do so, heading to evacuation centres. It was another poignant reminder of how disasters always amplify the vulnerability of our most vulnerable. Amanda Coleman wrote a blog about the need to address vulnerable populations in our crisis planning to ensure the plans are inclusive. I am picking up that thread to address how we can accomplish this in our future planning as Emergency Managers and communicators.

Emergency Managers strive to deliver holistic and comprehensive plans for their communities. And we know, that collaboration with their community is key if they want the theory to meet practice. In turn, working in support of their Emergency Managers, communicators and Public Information Officers (PIOs) are responsible for developing crisis communications plans that will get critical emergency information into the hands of those who need it - when they need it - including our most vulnerable populations.

Sometimes I think we forget that the role of the crisis communications team and the PIO goes well beyond the response phase. Communicators have a much larger part to play in the planning and preparedness phases of emergency response programs. This is especially true when developing inclusive disaster and emergency management plans for the vulnerable groups within our communities.

To start, we need Emergency Managers to engage communicators by asking them to bring their communications skill sets into the emergency planning phase. This can be done by supporting community engagement and collaboration with community groups. Emergency response plans need to consider how we would communicate and empower the ageing, homeless, youth, and those with physical or mental health challenges during a disaster or crisis. By no means is this a comprehensive list, but you get my meaning. To be inclusive, we need these groups to be part of the conversation during the planning phase of an emergency management program. This inclusive approach will initiate establishing essential relationships and lines of communication with your vulnerable groups. It will also invite collaboration between agencies or community organizations.

Through inclusive community engagement, you will be delivering an emergency response plan that meets the specific needs of each audience. By empowering the vulnerable in your community to take action towards their preparedness levels, you're building capacity and resilience for your community to respond and recover from a crisis.

The process to accomplish this mission is divided into three phases: define, locate, and reach.

Define: How are you defining your vulnerable audiences? To determine your specific populations, you need to understand the demographic makeup of your community. Every community is unique in the languages spoken, multicultural representation, faith systems, and your residents' physical and mental limitations. Begin with census surveys, data collection from your municipality, and information collected from your social services organizations.

Locate: Now that you know your community's makeup, how do you locate these at-risk groups? An approach suggested by the Centre for Disease Control and Public Health Preparedness "is to combine geographic information system (GIS) technology with information acquired through community collaboration and networking in the data collection process." If this is not available, consider what community associations support those vulnerable populations and make that your starting point. You may need to engage these support associations to act as the "conduit" to those you may not be able to engage directly.

Reach: Now that you have defined and located your groups, you need to consider how you will reach them. Like any effective communications plan, start with knowing where your audiences go to get information and learn what mediums will work best. Risk and Crisis communications messaging also need to inform and educate and tell people "why" they need to act. Make it personal. Always remember, "for people to act, they must understand the message, believe the messenger is credible and trustworthy, and have the capacity to respond" (CDC). This methodology suggests how to put into action a communications network of trusted individuals or spokespersons, for you to use to share your information with your vulnerable groups within your community.

The define, locate and reach approach outlines the model of Community Outreach Information Network (COIN.) COIN refers to "a grassroots network of people and trusted leaders who can help with emergency planning and give information to at-risk populations during an emergency." (Centre for Disease Control, CDC's Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response (OPHPR)). Building your COIN is instrumental in developing a program to support your crisis communications program.

The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response developed an excellent handbook that details how to approach creating your COIN using this five-step model:

Step 1 – Survey agencies and organizations to learn about their successes and failures

Step 2 – Conduct focus groups or community round tables

Step 3 – Analyze data gathered from the surveys, focus groups, and your previous assessment efforts

Step 4 – Collaborate with community organizations

Step 5 – Identify appropriate, trusted messengers to deliver messages

Genuine community engagement involves dialogue and feedback. Engage your spokespersons to review your emergency response plans for their groups before disaster strikes. Gain input from members of vulnerable groups and the community associations who support them on your plans and use the feedback to improve the plan. How can you reach them to get the information needed for their safety? Where would you be evacuating them to? How would you manage that process? Further to this, invite your groups to focus test your messages, products, and communications approach. The results you will achieve through the dialogue and feedback will be instrumental in devising an approach that works for both your organization and those you deem most vulnerable in your community. Once you start the discussion, keep the conversation going by connecting, sharing, and collaborating.

Emergency managers working in partnership with their communications team can begin creating a COIN by including the vulnerable groups in your community in the planning process and identifying trusted spokespersons within each group. Working together by engaging and empowering your vulnerable groups is a necessary step towards developing an inclusive plan. By working together, you are increasing your chances of a message sent, actually being a message received (and acted upon) during your next crisis or disaster.

Shawna Bruce is the Director of M.D. Bruce & Associates Ltd. where she supports organizations, communities, and teams to increase their capacity to communicate public information during a crisis. Learn more here:

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