Nowadays, the world experiences continuous changes, and governmental authorities have to design sufficient governmental programs to be prepared for various natural and manmade disasters. The cataclysms with both origins tend to have an adverse and devastating effect on society and infrastructure (Turchetti, Cannizzo, & Trieste, 2012). For example, Hurricane Katrina of 2005 was often referred to as “the most costly natural event” while the terrorist act of the World Trade Center of 2001 was the most terrifying and immense manmade disaster (Turchetti et al., 2012, p. 697). Apart from having different origins, both accidents showed gaps in the existent emergency and disaster management system and depicted aspects that required improvement.
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Nonetheless, the severe consequences of these disasters were not solely linked to the structural gaps but also were associated with aspects such as communication with vulnerable population groups. In this instance, apart from having a fully destructive effect on the society, the natural disasters such as Hurricane Katherina unveiled socio-economic and physical inequalities among different social segments (Nick et al., 2009).
Consequently, the primary goal of this paper is not only to understand the definition of the vulnerable population and identify its key groups but also to depict key associated issues and propose relevant recommendations for the improvement of emergency and disaster management initiatives with the help of the literature review. In the end, conclusions are drawn to summarize the main findings of the paper.
Emergency and Disaster Management
To establish a foundation for discussion, it is vital to understand the working mechanism and aims of emergency and disaster management. This framework implies organizing the flow of physical and human resources effectively to minimize the negative consequences of human and manmade disasters (Haddow, Bullock, & Coppola, 2013). In this case, the effective plan includes several phases such as prevention, mitigation, preparedness, response, and continuity services, and every step is of equal importance, as the success of the whole process is highly dependent on the realization of each phase (Haddow et al., 2013).
In the first place, the prevention stage implies designing effective measures to avert the disaster. However, not all disasters can be monitored and prevented promptly. This fact explains a strong connection between prevention and mitigation phases. These measures are developed to minimize the impact of negative outcomes. For example, the Red River Floodway is one of the bright examples of flood mitigation, as creating this river helped protect Winnipeg from flood and entirely diminish the budget required for the potential restoration of the city (Burn & Goel, 2011). It was possible to design this strategy based on the profound analysis of the river flood frequency and its levels (Burn & Goel, 2011).
The preparedness phase pays vehement attention to ensuring the availability of a diverse range of resources that can be used when the disaster takes place. It not only emphasizes the importance of required equipment but also focuses on providing effective training to speed the evacuation (Clemets & Casani, 2016). The subsequent stage is a response, and it implies the actions that take place at the moment of the accident, emergency, or natural disaster. It aims at catering to the basic humanitarian needs while performing quick evacuation and transportation of the disaster-affected population to the safe areas (Clemets & Casani, 2016).
Apart from the paramount importance of preparedness and response stages, the actions targeted at eliminating the threat are not terminated. Providing follow-up medical assistance and psychological support and diminishing negative effects of the disaster are the principal objectives of the recovery phase. Overall, it could be said that including these stages in emergency and disaster management plan is of high importance, as it will not only help minimize the number of victims but also assist in allocating financial and human resources effectively and substantially decreasing spending on recovery.
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Definitions of the Vulnerable Population
Nevertheless, apart from the well-identified stages of the planning process, there is a plethora of factors and barriers that have to be considered and addressed during the implementation. They may be linked to the lack of financial and human resources and transportation services, the absence of awareness, and ineffective communication (Palttala, Boano, Lund, & Vos, 2012). However, the central goal of this paper is to emphasize the gaps related to the vulnerable population.
Thus, before continuing the assessment of different vulnerable groups, it is vital to understand the meaning of this phrase by focusing on a diverse range of definitions provided by different scholars, non-profit organizations, and governmental entities. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2015) define social vulnerability as a “capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of the discrete or identifiable disaster in nature or society” (p. 1). To assess a degree of social vulnerability, CDC uses parameters such as socio-economic status, age, gender, language proficiency, and ethnicity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015).
In turn, World Health Organization (WHO) (2017) has a similar definition of a vulnerable population, but, at the same time, it provides examples of groups that require utmost care such as elderly people, children, pregnant women, and impaired individuals. In turn, it also depicts poverty as the major factor defining a marginalized group. As for non-profit organizations, the American Red Cross (2012) underlines differences in socio-economic status, age, and gender but also highlights the lack of English proficiency as one of the major characteristics. Disregarding slight differences in definitions, generally speaking, the vulnerable populations are representatives of different social and health groups that require assiduous attention and paramount care during natural and manmade disasters.
Groups of the Vulnerable Population
Due to a significant number of defining characteristics, individuals with special health care needs is one of the largest vulnerable groups. For example, representatives of this group account for 23 million people in the United States of America solely (Nick et al., 2009). Along with high saturation, this group is often defined as “fluid” and constantly changes in its number, as practically, any person can become disabled (Nick et al., 2009; p. 338). Thus, the representatives of this population can be divided into groups based on the type of their disability such as being hearing and visually impaired. Along with that, this cohort may include hospitalized patients, as it may also be difficult to transport them. The rising share of this group pertains to hazards, high frequency of accidents, and untimely medical assistance.
As for age, children under 18 years old and adults over 65 years old can be viewed as people at risk during the emergency. In turn, women at any age can also be discovered as a vulnerable population since these groups may not be able to react quickly and do not have high physical stamina. In turn, pregnant women are also at risk since they may require medical attention due to their special condition.
Lastly, it could be said that people of different ethnicities including American Indians and immigrants can also be viewed as vulnerable social groups since cultural dissimilarities and possible lack of English proficiency can create difficulties when delivering the alarming message and during times of evacuation. Nonetheless, their number continues to grow since the United States of America remains one of the most attractive economies in the global arena. Apart from the group representatives mentioned above, it could be said that homeless individuals and other marginalized groups can also be regarded as vulnerable (Florida’s Public Health & Medical System, 2013).
Thus, apart from the well-developed infrastructure and sufficient response mechanism, there are several issues linked to different phases of emergency and disaster management. Consequently, in the context of this section, it will be essential to discuss key barriers faced when addressing the needs of the vulnerable population. In this case, the major groups pertain to risk communication, evacuation, continuity services, and other problems.
It could be said that one of the major risks pertains to problems with communication and awareness. For example, one of the issues is linked to the ineffective interaction of governmental authorities with population, and it may result in a delay of evacuation, and, as a consequence, lead to a higher percentage of deaths (Nick et al., 2009). The underdeveloped communication network and the insufficient flow of information are the major triggers of this issue. For example, it is evident that the governmental authorities experience difficulties when delivering a message to homeless people, as they are not always located in shelters (Florida’s Public Health & Medical System, 2013). Focusing on the development of the universal design of communication procedure will result in interacting with as many vulnerable groups as possible (Nick et al., 2009).
Along with that, the inability to receive messages promptly may take place due to the lack of appropriate modalities that can be used to deliver news to individuals with hearing and visual impairment. Simultaneously, the inability to communicate in official language can also be regarded as a significant barrier, as it doubts the effectiveness of the interaction and message. A combination of these factors clearly affects the speed of the evacuation process, as it may take the time to approach these groups of the population. Consequently, it may result in higher mortality rates and question the effectiveness of the designed emergency and disaster management plan.
Due to potential issues and disabilities, problems with transportation and evacuation may arise. For example, many agencies do not have a close location to the sights, where the individuals will be evacuated (Nick et al., 2009). This matter will create confusion and difficulties for families and relatives to find an evacuated person. At the same time, it could be said that currently designed evacuation plans do not always cater to the abilities of the vulnerable population. For example, some of them require using stairs in the case of emergency, and it is not appropriate for disabled individuals, who use wheelchairs regularly (Nick et al., 2009).
At the same time, another problem is the fact that homeless shelters do not have well-developed evacuation plans and do not meet safety standards (Florida’s Public Health & Medical System, 2013). These gaps in the existent emergency and evacuation plans can be discovered as the major threats since they can dramatically decrease the effectiveness of the whole evacuation process.
Surprisingly, another issue is linked to the privacy of information. According to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the information concerning a person’s medical condition is confidential and cannot be shared with third parties (Nick et al., 2009). In this case, it creates legal problems when informing disaster shelters about particular representatives of the vulnerable population. On the one hand, it is essential to inform disaster shelters that they will be receiving individuals with some kind of impairment, but on the other side, this initiative violates the law. Resolving this ethical dilemma will enhance the evacuation process and help avoid subsequent legal issues.
In turn, problems after evacuation may be related to providing life-supporting devices and products. For example, disaster shelters may experience a shortage of medicaments and food while it will pose a threat to pregnant women, as their health condition requires a rapid response of the medical personnel (Nick et al., 2009). Any obstacles mentioned above could trigger adverse consequences including the death of a newborn baby and his/her mother. Apart from that, another matter pertains to the fact that some individuals with physical impairment actively rely on electronic devices to support the maintenance of their organs (Nick et al., 2009). Thus, “who will take care of people with these needs during the power outage?” is still an open question.
Previous sections identify the most common and highly important issues that have to be addressed by the governmental authorities during disaster management and emergency planning. Thus, generally speaking, other problems may also include finding the vulnerable population in the case of emergency and satisfying their basic physical needs that are critical for survival (Nick et al., 2009). These issues continue to exist due to a lack of regular needs assessment and an insufficient emergency planning system (Nick et al., 2009). Filling these gaps will help improve the existent emergency preparedness and response phases and minimize the number of lethal cases among representatives of the vulnerable population.
To address the problem of communication, the experts suggest employing a diversity of communication modalities (Nick et al., 2009). Relying on this method can help minimize the time of delivery and communicate the message promptly. For example, it is widely known that online media can deliver the message faster than any other means, and this benefit has to be actively applied in practice in the context of the preparedness phase of emergency and disaster management (Palttala et al., 2012). At the same time, the government can hire a specific group of experts to create a universal communicational framework, as relying on this approach will assist in delivering a message to several groups including the vulnerable population simultaneously.
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As for evacuation gaps, it is essential to design different evacuation routes for people with special needs. For example, taking into account their potential inability to using stairs can help propose alternative evacuation plans for certain groups of the vulnerable population and increase the effectiveness of the procedure. Along with that, providing related education and training will increase people’s awareness of potential evacuation routes, unveil its major gaps, and enhance its overall speed (Nick et al., 2009).
When referring to privacy and confidentiality, making exemptions to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act such as giving a possibility to disclose person’s health records to third parties in the case of disaster or emergency will assist in avoiding potential lawsuits and increase the efficiency of the evacuation process (Nick et al., 2009).
In turn, the governmental authorities have to ensure that the designated organizations have the required resources to maintain patients with electronic devices. As for food and medicaments, it is reasonable to create kits that will cater to the needs of different vulnerable population groups (Nick et al., 2009). At the same time, it is logical to develop lists of potential required medicine and train volunteers, who will be responsible for ensuring that all the vital resources are offered to people in need (Nick et al., 2009). At the same time, having negotiations concerning the identification of the vulnerable population and conducting continuous needs assessment can be viewed as the major steps in improving the overall working mechanism of disaster and emergency management planning.
When filling the gaps identified above, one cannot underestimate the immense role of non-profit organizations in decreasing the social vulnerability of the population. Apart from providing funding to enhance the recovery of vulnerable social groups, these entities help attract the attention of the authorities to the existent problems and make them visible (Hutton, 2016). Along with that, non-profit organizations assist in increasing awareness of marginalized populations, and this aspect decreases the percentage of deaths, as people know evacuation plans. For example, the Red Cross wanted to help different social groups learn about emergency management, distributed preparedness kits, and organized educational sessions in English and Spanish (American Red Cross, 2012). Consequently, offering financial support to these non-profit entities can contribute to the program development to address the needs of the vulnerable population and help them overcome any disaster.
Overall, the governmental authorities have to work in collaboration with non-profit organizations, create partnerships, continuously monitor any changes in the environment, conduct sufficient risk and needs assessment, and ensure the compliance of their actions with safety regulations and individual rights and freedoms (Shivayogi, 2013). Consequently, developing universal standards will assist in promoting uniformity in decision-making and decrease risks faced by vulnerable populations. Nonetheless, simultaneous implementation of all aspects described above can be discovered of high importance, as, otherwise, it will not be possible to fill the depicted gaps.
In the end, this paper helps understand that addressing an array of needs and demands of the vulnerable population remains one of the major issues in the sphere of disaster and emergency management. It incurs since the vulnerable population not only includes individuals with mental or physical impairment but also elderly people, children, women, homeless people, and immigrants lacking the appropriate command of English. As a consequence, these characteristics create difficulties when delivering an alarming message, evacuating, and satisfying their needs in the case of an emergency.
In this instance, conducting continuous needs and risk assessment, revising evacuation plans, designing emergency kits, and using a plethora of communication modalities can improve the current situation. In turn, the governmental authorities should consider establishing partnerships with non-governmental organizations such as the American Red Cross, as they cannot only provide assistance during the emergency but also increase awareness of marginalized and vulnerable groups.
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