emPOWERing Public Health: Fairfax County, Virginia

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November 7, 2017

In 2016, Winter Storm Jonas threatened the East Coast with hazardous winter weather which threatened the health of millions. Concerned with the well-being of its at-risk and electricity dependent community members, the Fairfax County Health Department (FCHD) leveraged the tools of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) emPOWER Initiative to strengthen its preparedness […]

Special winter vehicle for removing snow from road in action

In 2016, Winter Storm Jonas threatened the East Coast with hazardous winter weather which threatened the health of millions. Concerned with the well-being of its at-risk and electricity dependent community members, the Fairfax County Health Department (FCHD) leveraged the tools of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) emPOWER Initiative to strengthen its preparedness and response capabilities in anticipation of the event.

Fairfax County, Va., is the largest jurisdiction in the national capital region with a population of approximately 1.2 million individuals. Due to the location and size of its community, the FCHD undertakes numerous preparedness activities to ensure the health of its population.  Among the focuses of its preparedness activities are efforts related to at-risk and vulnerable populations, especially those who are impacted by power outages. “One of the biggest concerns we have is that when there is a large scale emergency that impacts power, people who sue medical devices will be impacted by power outages.” noted Marc Barbiere, Former Emergency Management Coordinator for the FCHD. And with hazardous winter weather, snowfalls approaching three feet in height, freezing temperatures, and the potential for mass power outages, Winter Storm Jonas provided such a concern.

As the State of Virginia braced itself for the storm, its Governor declared a state of emergency.  Following this declaration, the FCHD worked with the Virginia Department of Health to gain access to the tools and datasets of the HHS emPOWER Initiative. Developed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), the HHS emPOWER Initiative can provide public health departments with information on the presence of individuals within their communities who use durable medical equipment that is reliant on electricity. With this information local health departments can plan for and respond to emergency events in a variety of ways.

With its emergency operations center activated, FCHD was poised to use data from the HHS emPOWER Initiative to respond to any needs that developed due to the storm. It would have done so through coordination with its Emergency Support Function partners, particularly fire and police, if major power outages occurred due to the weather.

Thankfully major power outages did not occur and the use of the HHS emPOWER Initiative’s datasets were not necessary in response to the winter storm. However, the knowledge that FCHD could’ve used the data if necessary was a big help.

“It was very comforting knowing that instead of making estimates about where people were, or relying on [people] to contact us, we had information on where [individuals] were that we could use to identify needs and be proactive.” Barbiere noted. “For us this is a huge benefit because in the past we always relied on people, who required medically assistive devices, signing up with their power company or the county registry. That’s all opt-in, we don’t get that information unless they sign up. This information is much more robust and useful because it gives a true sense of where populations are.”

With its experience with the HHS emPOWER Initiative being so positive, Fairfax County has decided to create a position for access and functional needs coordination that interfaces with the health department to identify how to perform outreach to at-risk individuals before the next emergency event takes place.  Additionally, the county plans on developing a vulnerable population workgroup within which the health department, the Office of Emergency Management, long-term care facilities, hospitals, faith-based communities, and representatives of the disability community can collaborate and identify additional strategies on how to improve preparedness for at-risk and vulnerable individuals as well as further leverage the HHS emPOWER Initiative tools.

“As people start to think about ways to use the [HHS emPOWER Initiative] data, it’s important to talk to partners within their jurisdictions. Looking at the data and figuring out ways to make the data useful during an emergency in partnership with your county Office of Emergency Management, geographic information systems specialists, non-governmental organizations, and others can help in really thinking about how useful this information can be as you’re working through a response.” noted Barbiere. “It’s a very successful tool and it’s very important to consider how to build it into your toolkit.”

Resources

  • emPOWER Map 2.0 (publicly accessible HHS emPOWER Map Tool): https://empowermap.hhs.gov/
  • NACCHO Tool – HHS emPOWER Fact Sheet: NACCHO Publications Site
  • http://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-broome-county-new-york/
  • http://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-maricopa-county-arizona/
  • http://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-city-of-new-orleans/

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