From outdoor sirens to text alerts, emergency messaging systems abound. They’re so prevalent that the public might take for granted that if they’re in danger, authorities will notify them. While that’s certainly the goal of many emergency management agencies, it’s not an easy task—and communicating with people with disabilities or limited English proficiency can be even more complicated.
The Colorado State Legislature recognized this and passed a bill directing the Natural Hazards Center to assess current emergency alert practices, processes, and outcomes related to how those groups receive warnings. The resulting report—currently available in draft form—identified several ways the state can address gaps in funding, resources, and practice to provide more inclusive alerts for all Coloradoans.
“We learned a lot about how emergency alerts work across the state and nationally,” said Natural Hazards Center Research Associate Carson MacPherson-Krutsky, who led the project. “One of the biggest takeaways was how time consuming and resource intensive alerting is for both those who issue alerts and those who receive them.”
Colorado has about 900,000 people that primarily speak a language other than English and more than a million people that identify as having a disability. The research team found that many of these residents might not receive adequate emergency notifications because of staffing constraints, system limitations, and the channels available to send them messages.
“Our survey results showed that alert authorities rely heavily on services and channels that require users to opt-in—and less than 40 percent do,” said Mary Angelica Painter, a Natural Hazards Center research associate who also worked on the project. “That indicates that opt-in messaging is likely a barrier for everyone, but especially for those with limited English proficiency and disabilities.”
Other issues found to impact those particular population groups included limited resources for authorities to translate alerts into Spanish and other languages, alert delivery systems and providers that stymie inclusive alerting, and a patchwork of practices that can result in unequal service offerings across cities and counties.
The draft report outlines several actions Colorado can take to improve the likelihood that people with disabilities or understanding of English will receive alerts that are timely, understandable, and accessible. Those include appointing state-level staff to support inclusive alerts, standardizing alert procedures statewide, and providing the funds needed to ensure jurisdictions can provide inclusive services—regardless of size or tax base.
“The good news is that there are many actionable things we can do to improve alerts in Colorado,” said Natural Hazards Center Director and Project Supervisor Lori Peek. “We’re so grateful that Representative Elizabeth Velasco and the state legislature supported the bill that led to this research. It really has the potential to improve lives and lessen the disproportionate disaster impacts that marginalized groups often experience.”