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Public Health Column for the Times-News

Did you say emergency?

Published: Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Health Department columnist

Alas, I've reached that age when my husband and I carry on two different conversations based on what each thought the other said. When we finally realize what we've been saying to each other, we usually have a good laugh. But I can't say we were communicating.

We think about communication a lot in public health. Reaching Henderson County citizens during a public health emergency is imperative; we must be able to communicate to you the information you will need to keep safe.

We're not alone in this concern. Other county agencies and first responders have communication plans, as we do, to ensure that we reach you, your household, people with disabilities and others who have access and functional needs.

If a crisis occurs, what are the best channels to use to reach you? There's not one answer because depending on your age, location and other factors, what's best for you may not ever reach your neighbor. Some only communicate through their smart phone by text or email. Some listen to local radio. Others watch local television. Today, many get news and information only through social media. Facebook and Twitter are two channels that your neighbor can use to relay what's happening even faster than what can be disseminated through news media. Times have changed!

The health department uses many channels to communicate to you the information you need during a public health emergency. Press releases, media briefings and press conference information are sent to radio, television and newspapers. To reach our Latino population, the same information is sent to La Voz, a Spanish newspaper, and to El Centro, an advocacy organization.

The Public Health Hotline (828-694-4040) is activated and ready during an emergency. The information is updated regularly and is recorded in both English and Spanish. If an emergency expands, we are able to go beyond just a recording and station staff with phones to address your specific concerns.

For those with Internet access, our website, www.hendersoncountync.org/health, will be updated with the most current information. A web page may be posted specific to the event with additional information for the public.

Social media has become an essential tool for communicating. The Henderson County Government Facebook page will contain up-to-the-minute information and instructions for the public. Depending on the event, we may partner with the Sheriff's Office to post information on their Facebook page as well as their Twitter feed (@SheriffHCSO).

We might also ask them to send out information on Nixle, a community notification system to send important public safety and community information in real-time directly to residents who subscribe to the free service (standard text messaging provider fees apply). You can decide if the information is delivered via text message, email or over the Web. Signing up is easy at www.hendersonsheriff.org.

If an event is limited geographically to a small subdivision, we may work with staff from other agencies that will go door-to-door talking to you and handing out old-fashioned print information. For instance, this usually happens with a rabies event. We work with the Sheriff's Office and Animal Control to get the warnings to those most likely affected.

This is large-scale communication, but what about communicating within your family? What if something happens and you're not with your family? How will you reach them? How will you know they are safe? How can you let them know that you're OK? We all know that mobile phones and computers could be unreliable during a disaster. Electricity could be disrupted. Do all members of your household know how to reach each other and where to meet up in an emergency? If the answer is no, then some planning is in order.

Start with creating a paper copy of contact information for your family and other important people/offices, such as medical facilities, doctors, schools or service providers. Include an out-of-town contact who can act as a central point of contact to help your household reconnect. Make sure that everyone carries a copy in his or her backpack, purse or wallet. Also post a copy in a central location in your home, such as your refrigerator or family bulletin board.

Remember that in a disaster, long-distance phone calls may be easier to make because local phone lines may be jammed. If you're using a mobile phone, a text message may get through when a phone call will not.

Decide on safe places in your neighborhood to meet if there is a fire or other emergency and you need to leave your home. Also select a place outside of your neighborhood for your family to meet if a disaster happens when you're not at home and you can't get back to your home.

Information is important but useless if not communicated. The health department has a crisis communication plan, and we encourage you to do the same for your family. Have regular household meetings to review and practice your plan. Communicate with your loved ones now. In an emergency, you don't want to hear: "What did you say?" You do want to hear that all your loved ones are safe.

We would like to know what you use to get important information, particularly in an emergency. If you'll take a moment to answer a few questions, we will enter your name in a drawing for a family emergency kit. To take the survey, go to our website, www.hendersoncountync.org/health and click on the Community Survey link.

For tips and templates to help you create your family emergency communication plan, visit www.ready.gov/make-a-plan.

Kimberly Horton is the communications manager at the Henderson County Department of Public Health. She can be reached at khorton@hendersoncountync.org.

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Department of Public Health • 1200 Spartanburg Highway, Suite 100 • Hendersonville, NC 28792 • (828) 692-4223