This is the story of how we learned that faith-based partnerships work for disaster response.
We are Mary Kersell, Sandra Martin and Tracy Rogers; public health emergency preparedness planners in Western Massachusetts and we are collaborating with our many partners to improve our region’s ability to prepare for and survive disasters. With funding and guidance from the Western Region Homeland Security Advisory Council, through the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, we’ve been working with the Council to connect the Faith Community to our local emergency planning, response and recovery systems.
We partnered with the Faith-based Community because of its strong mission and commitment to helping people in need, and the unique resources it brings to community emergencies. Our project was designed to build resiliency among Faith-based groups by encouraging them to create continuity of operations plans and offer personal preparedness training to their congregations.
Shortly after this project began, a series of devastating weather emergencies hit Western Massachusetts--a place where nothing bad ever happens—and served as an acute reminder of the need for partnerships with the Faith-based Community. We experienced three federally declared disasters within a year, including tornadoes, major floods and severe snow/ice storms that destroyed many homes and businesses, and cut off power for weeks. Traditional emergency responders were stretched very thin and the need for help was tremendous. Thankfully, many churches in the heavily damaged areas stepped up to provide food, supplies, comfort and information to the community.
After the clean-up, there was a lot of reflection about the response. Many churches and volunteers agreed that they could have been much more effective and could have avoided duplication of efforts, if they had done some pre-event planning and had some organized way to connect with the emergency response system.
In the wake of these disasters, we worked to formally connect the Faith-based Community to local emergency management systems. We did this by building on an idea first piloted in New York City after 9/11, where churches were used as community centers, providing food, water and information during the day to locals and responders. We called our version, Emergency Rest Centers, which function as warming/cooling centers or community care sites. Emergency Rest Centers provide a welcoming place for survivors to gather, get information, charge cell phones, find a cup of coffee or water, receive first aid and emotional support, and sometimes get help with pets. Emergency Rest Centers supplement, but do not replace mass care and sheltering operations.
We have found the Faith-based Community to be very enthusiastic about being connected to the emergency response system, though there have, of course, been challenges. A few key lessons we learned from taking on this project:
- Nothing happens unless somebody takes the first step;
- There can never be too much communication among “town fathers and mothers,” local Emergency Management Directors, responders and faith/community organizations;
- Building partnerships and connections is the essence of all community-based projects and takes consistent and coordinated efforts;
- The old saying that you don’t want to be exchanging business cards during the disaster is especially true when working with private sector community partners;
- Despite all of our new technologies to chat, blog, email, text, etc.; face-to-face meetings with partners is still the best way to foster new relationships and build trust; and
- A little bit of money really helps keep things moving.
Some of the smaller churches we worked with worried that they didn’t have enough volunteers to staff an Emergency Rest Center. To address this concern, some have joined with two or three other churches. Some larger churches needed permission from their governance hierarchies to participate, so we have learned to work with regional diocese. Each situation has required a unique, local solution, but by working together before the disaster, churches and other community organizations can become effective, coordinated participants in the emergency response system.
Together with advice from many partners, we wrote The Emergency Rest Center Guide for Community Groups and Municipalities. Part of the Guide’s purpose is to link community organizations, faith groups, municipalities, and emergency agencies to facilitate a cohesive and effective whole community response during an emergency. It outlines how to set up an Emergency Rest Center and provides tools such as Job Action Sheets, Forms and a Mutual Aid Agreement between the institution and the community.
Anyone who would like the any of our planning documents (www.westernmassready.org) in editable formats should email the Council Program Manager. Please use them freely. All we ask is that you reference the source and share your good ideas, updates and improvements with us.
We are grateful for the support from WRHSAC (www.wrhsac.org) and our many partners and their staff.We are especially grateful that our Emergency Rest Center system has yet to be tested by another major event, but we recognize that practice is needed to stay ready. We expect to keep these groups connected and active by including them in other emergency training and exercises in the region throughout the year. We will present many of these materials in the spring, 2015 at the upcoming Region 1 FEMA Faith Conference held in Massachusetts, and at a Western Mass Community Organizations Active in Disasters/Faith Community Summit in April.