El Paso Extreme Weather Task Force (EWTF)

State: TX Type: Model Practice Year: 2009

The goals of the El Paso Extreme Weather Task Force are to improve public awareness in the El Paso community of the importance of severe weather safety and preparedness; create an emergency action plan; and reduce the number of extreme weather-related deaths and illnesses in El Paso County. The project’s main objectives are to increase awareness and education to the general public on the causes, health effects, and prevention of extreme hot and cold weather-related illness; conduct outreach to at-risk groups to increase knowledge of risk reduction steps; and increase community participation and response. The number of heat deaths has decreased by 50percent since 2002. From 2004 to 2008, 7,400 electric box fans were delivered to high-risk individuals. From 2006 to March 2009, more than 10,100 blankets were delivered to high-risk individuals.
The program addresses the prevention of adverse human health effects due to extreme hot and cold weather in El Paso, Texas. North American summers are hot. Summers have produced severe heat waves in many parts of the United States since 1980 causing hundreds of deaths. Scientific studies by the National Weather Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and other agencies predict that North America will experience more, longer and hotter heat waves, with a greater potential for adverse health effects, increasing the number of deaths, particularly among the elderly, the very young, or among people who are chronically ill, socially isolated or otherwise especially vulnerable. In June 2002, El Paso suffered severe hot weather. The Medical Examiner was reporting deaths due to extreme heat in elderly individuals who lived alone. With the prolonged hot weather and the outlook for more high temperatures, public health and emergency management leaders realized it was necessary to address the issue in the El Paso community. The use of a task force had already been successful in addressing low immunization rates. The EWTF was convened to evaluate the hot weather situation and its effect on health. Information regarding the target population’s health problems and needs were obtained from key partner agencies to assess needs for the program. The task force also researched what other communities, including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and San Antonio, Texas, had done to address heat waves. The EWTF chose to use strategies, including the Buddy System, heat relief centers, and hot weather emergency plan, which other communities had successfully used. The Medical Examiner provides the EWTF key information on the deaths due to extreme weather and the Fire Department EMS provides information on the heat emergencies they respond to. The EWTF uses this information for planning of where to focus its efforts. The EWTF first gathered information to determine needs (assess) then determined how the needs could best be met (policy development) and make sure this gets done (assurance). The EWTF focuses on effective prevention education, promoting harm reduction measures, and public policy development. It works on building social capital and community resilience by promoting the Buddy System and by conducting fan and blanket drives. The EWTF worked to shape public policy around extreme weather by development of an Extreme Weather Emergency Plan. Our program uses primary prevention strategies to target groups at high-risk. To communicate important health promotion face-to-face messages that emphasize cultural sensitivity and appropriateness, the EWTF uses promotoras (community health workers) that live in the colonias and are of the same race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status as the target population. A task force is the means through which our program was developed and interventions are implemented. There are very few task forces that address public health issues in El Paso and this is the first that addresses extreme weather health effect. The innovative use of resources is a hallmark of our program. The EWTF uses the agencies in a very coordinated and efficient manner in conducting the fan and blanket drives. For blanket/fan distribution, the 2-1-1 Texas Call Center takes the telephone request for blankets/fans and also provides information on the Buddy System. The daily requests are sent to TDFPS Adult Protective Services (APS) and a staff or volunteer makes a home visit to deliver the fan or blanket to the elderly. In making the home visit, the APS worker makes an assessment of any other problems or needs that the elderly or homebound person may have and takes care of the issue or makes a referral to the appropriate agency. In the colonias, the promotoras make the deliveries. APS staff and Texas A&M Colonias Program promotoras spend many hours delivering the fans and blankets. The home visits are very beneficial to the recipient of the fan or blan
Agency Community RolesThe convener of the EWTF was the health department director, with support from the mayor, county judge, and fire chief. This added clout and community and media attention to the effort. The chair is a critical element in any task force. The health department public affairs coordinator and a staff member from the El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management were assigned as co-chairs. Both have been a major driving force in the task force process since its inception. They have provided leadership and taken responsibility for assuring sound products for the community and meaningful participation for EWTF members. The 2-1-1 Call Center, Public Health Preparedness Program and Epidemiology Program of the health department are key partners in the EWTF. The call to join the EWTF provided an opportunity for collaboration among critical partners with a focus or interest in health and safety and who work with at-risk populations for extreme weather effect. The EWTF is important for resource availability and establishes a collaborative working relationship between community, business, and governmental agencies. Representatives of the 36 partner agencies are invited to monthly meetings to plan activities using the consensus process. Members are invited to participate in the planned activities. Communication is maintained via e-mail and meeting minutes. The partners are American Red Cross, Area Agency on Aging, City of El Paso Fire Department, Department of Public Health, Community Development Department, Sun Metro, Public Libraries, Retired Senior Volunteer Program, Parks and Recreation, Police Department, Public Affairs and Communication Office, Mayor’s Office, El Paso City-County Office of Emergency Management, El Paso County General Assistance Program, Sheriff’s Department, Medical Examiner’s Office, Nutrition Program, County Attorney’s Office, County Judge’s Office, El Paso Electric Co., Fabens Independent School District, KVIA-TV, National Weather Service, Project Bravo Region 19, ESC Migrant Education Program, Rio Grande Council of Governments, Salvation Army, Texas A & M, Colonias Project, Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Adult Protective Services, Texas Department of Public Safety, Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas Gas Service, and Western Refining. The Health Department provides consistent leadership to the EWTF, an element necessary to ensure success. Collaborations and partnerships take time to develop trust. The Health Department previously partnered with many of the EWTF agencies for other projects and already had an excellent working relationship with them. This established credibility and made it easier to form the task force and work effectively. The Health Department has provided meeting space, coordination, and facilitation and has coordinated several recognition events for task force members and donors of the fan/blanket drives. The Health Department believes that it is important to celebrate success and to recognize partners and the public for hard work and contributions. The Health Department strives to build positive working relationships and good communication with EWTF members, participates in all events/activities, provides support, and works as a team with the other partner agencies. The Health Department identifies new partners and focuses on the value of working together to reach mutual goals.ImplementationStrategies conducted to improve public education and awareness: Community presentations held in local venues, including community churches, schools, health fairs, meetings, and social gatherings. Community newsletters promoting the Buddy System. The El Paso Electric Company mails utility bill newsletters to more than 300,000 customers in the May, June, July, August, and December billings. EWTF members published articles in the American Red Cross, City of El Paso, and Adult Protective Services newsletters. Articles are published in Texas Health Magazine, El Paso Times and El Diario newspapers, and other publications. Bus placards placed in more than 30 Sun Metro buses promoting the Buddy System. Health education materials including brochures and incentive items, such as magnets, are distributed at community events. A 2-1-1 telephone hotline is available 24 hours/7 days a week to provide information and referral. Electronic media promotion via Extreme Weather Task Force website as a page of the main City website: Broadcast media promotion through local television and radio public service announcements (PSA) and interviews each year. Two PSAs were developed in coordination with local high schools, television meteorologists, and EWTF members. Mayoral proclamations and County resolutions mark initiation of the Buddy System campaigns in April and October. Strategies conducted to support at-risk groups: Summer Fan Drive and Winter Blanket Drive. Targeted community education for elderly at Senior Citizen Centers. Community education to postal workers, adult day care staff, local utilities staff, neighborhood associations, and others who work with at-risk groups. Education/outreach to migrant farm workers and their families. Fourteen Texas A&M Colonia Project Promotoras (Community Health Workers) trained to conduct education/outreach in the colonias. Refillable sports water bottles distributed at 27 locations to homeless individuals identified by local law enforcement. Sun Metro installed water misters at two major bus terminals. Fourteen Transit Route Supervisors carry bottled water to distribute to stranded patrons when the bus is running late or breaks down. Eighteen El Paso Community College promotoras trained to conduct door-to-door outreach. Strategies conducted to improve community response: EWTF meets at least once a month to plan activities. Extreme Weather Response Plan developed in 2006. Buddy System campaign fan drive is conducted from May to August and blanket drive from October to February. Public awareness/education is conducted year round.
A great lesson learned is the importance of having the community as a partner. This has assured stability and success. The community has been involved, from the beginning stages of the EWTF through the implementation, in a variety of roles such as members of the task force, volunteers or promotoras (community health workers). Including community members in each of these capacities has helped to foster trust and acceptance of the program within the community. The EWTF has clear systems in place (financial, community outreach, distribution) that have helped establish its credibility in the community. The program is supported by beneficiaries, community ownership and contributions in cash and kind. Sharing resources saves time. One agency can be the lead agency for distribution, but cannot do it all. Agencies like to promote their services and the EWTF issues at the same presentation. This helps them reach the agency goals and objectives as well as those of the EWTF. Agencies partnered and divided time for conducting community presentations. An EWTF brochure was developed with key prevention information and named all of the partner agencies. The EWTF receives reports at each meeting. An APS Coordinator emails some reports between meeting times. When we first started, APS was the only agency collecting and delivering fans and blankets. We have added two additional agencies deliver the fans and blankets and this has worked out very well.
The El Paso Extreme Weather Task Force has been sustained for more than six years. The City of El Paso, County of El Paso, and key state agencies maintain strong support for the practice due to its response to a public health issue and its outreach to vulnerable populations. The time spent in organizing and planning has built a solid foundation of commitment from the partnering agencies that has sustained the efforts of the task force. The EWTF helps meet or exceed the goals and objectives of many of the partner agencies. This serves to maintain a good collaborative relationship. Recently, the EWTF was brought under the umbrella of the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC). This formalizes the task force as an important component of emergency response for the El Paso community. The EWTF is now attached, through subcommittee, to a City and County approved body. This allows for an elevated task force status and providing a mechanism for a speedier and more unfettered process to do its work.