December 4, 2018 - As the year comes to a close, I’m reflecting on the past summer and one of the initiatives Healthcare Ready supported that aimed to promote equity in local emergency management policy. We worked with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability on the 2018 update of their Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project (DP3), a comprehensive plan that fulfills a federal requirement that cities must have an All-Hazards Mitigation Plan. Baltimore’s DP3 plan surpasses the standard by also incorporating strategies and actions to address the impacts of climate change in the city. The city has also made a concerted effort to incorporate equitable policies into city planning efforts. In support of the city’s commitment to equity in emergency preparedness, Healthcare Ready worked with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability throughout the summer on the update of the DP3. Our mission was to ensure that in the process of updating the plan, the city engaged communities that were representative of the city and listened to their perspective on how the city could better address the needs of all its citizens in regard to risk and vulnerability.
The effort to include communities that are otherwise pushed to the margins is no small feat. It takes thoughtful time and energy to forge connections to those who have been historically disconnected. The first step is to identify these underserved groups and uncover any vulnerabilities they may have. That is what differentiates equity from equality: recognizing that communities have unique needs that require unique resources. It is limiting to view the marginalized as nothing more than a collection of unmet needs, yet we still need to acknowledge that these needs do exist and that something can – and must – be done about them. I came face to face with this reality countless times during our activations for the recent hurricanes, typhoons, and wildfires that have been devastating communities across the US, as I answered calls from patients who were up against intersecting socioeconomic disadvantages and access needs in the wake of an already troubling disaster.
In the case of Baltimore City, a place with its share of systematic inequalities, the movement for equity in city planning is active. Baltimore, the Charm City, has taken steps in the right direction by creating an Equity in Planning Committee in 2015 and a Commission on Sustainability that is made up of leaders of labor unions and community organizations, as well as individuals working towards public health and environmental justice. In addition to establishing these groups, Baltimore has explored novel programs to encourage community preparedness like Resiliency Hubs, introduced in the original 2013 DP3 plan. Resiliency Hubs are local, community-based centers that are officially recognized and supported by the City, and they serve to link communities and trusted neighborhood leaders with critical disaster readiness and response resources at a grassroots level. The Resiliency Hub initiative is still developing and expanding, and the hope is that they will play an important role in community resilience and disaster preparedness moving forward. This program should be an example for all emergency managers as they seek the broadest reach in preparing their community for disasters.
Healthcare Ready is committed to improving community resilience around the country, which cannot be done well unless it is done equitably. It was an honor and a pleasure to partner with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability on the DP3 update, to include directly supporting and participating in the Equity and Outreach Subcommittee. This subcommittee was a part of the larger Advisory Committee, which was made up local officials and influencers convened to provide oversight and guidance on the DP3. In our work with the subcommittee, we started by consulting local experts for best practices in equitable community outreach, which we then used to identify what vulnerabilities exist in Baltimore. In the span of a few weeks, we interviewed community leaders and surveyed over a thousand citizens to get a self-assessment of disaster vulnerability in the city.
The survey results alone were a testament to the characteristic passion of Baltimore citizens about their neighborhoods. The respondents did not hesitate to provide just the kind of thorough assessment we sought. Baltimoreans let us know that they cared about children and the elderly facing harsh weather conditions, they shed light on the unique needs of those preparing for disasters in structurally-disadvantaged areas, such as historically “redlined” neighborhoods, and they were overwhelmingly concerned for the homeless citizens living in the city. Speaking directly with leaders of Baltimore-based organizations gave us a plethora of insight from which we could draw that both underscored what we were reading from survey respondents and provided a perspective on what limitations and opportunities exist when addressing these community concerns.
We also got the chance to spark a conversation about preparing for man-made hazards, such as oil spills or active shooters. The Office of Sustainability made the decision to ask about man-made hazards and begin to lay the foundation for including them in future iterations of the DP3. I was moved by one interview with a woman who worked for a non-profit that supports pregnant mothers in many of the predominantly African-American neighborhoods around the city, focusing on those in West Baltimore. When asked to talk about any concerns she had for these women when dealing with man-made hazards such as riots, she was unable to objectively speak about preparing for these events, as she was supporting a community of folks that were directly affected by the recent periods of unrest in West Baltimore connected to an outrage over police relations with African-American communities in the city. This conversation, on top of numerous survey comments and conversations with interviewees that touched on related social issues, served as a reminder that equity has an undeniable place in emergency management. Reaching out to community members and learning about their lived experiences is crucial to being able to serve citizens across the board, as is the goal of a public or private official working to create a more resilient community.
We used these results, along with our one-on-one interviews, to create a profile of the city that we developed into a set of recommendations for city planners moving forward. You can read more about what we did and what we learned in the Community Outreach and Public Survey Summary appendices of the drafted DP3. I hope that the work that we began this summer continues to grow and build upon the existing foundation of equitable policy that leaders in Charm City have already created.