Preparing New York City’s Diverse Communities for Emergencies

  Date: Tuesday, June 13, 2017
By Iskra Gencheva, Deputy Director of Community Education and Language Access, NYC Emergency Management

Cities thrive because of their vibrant and diverse communities. In many migrant communities, factors such as culture, language, immigration status, and community isolation contribute to higher levels of vulnerability to the effects of emergencies. Disseminating relevant, culturally-appropriate emergency preparedness information to migrant populations is critical to building resilience. Effective emergency management in urban areas depends on creating links to these communities and offering the tools and information they need to be prepared.

In New York City, 37% of the population is foreign-born and 49% of the population speaks a language other than English at home. To prepare New York City’s diverse communities for emergencies, NYC Emergency Management (NYCEM) has created tools and educational programs to address the needs of these communities before, during and after emergencies.

In February 2017, NYCEM conducted focus group discussions with Latino, Chinese, and native-born New York City residents to understand how New Yorkers prepare for emergencies. This research showed that both Latino and Chinese participants feel that they have greater tolerance for emergencies compared with native-born residents because they’re used to living in harsher conditions in their home countries. Even so, another recent poll showed that Latino residents feel less informed about natural disasters, power outages, or terrorism compared to native-born residents. These results show that migrants may overestimate their readiness to respond to emergencies. Lack of accurate information about emergency preparedness and available resources in migrant communities is one of the biggest challenges NYCEM faces in its educational efforts.

NYCEM maintains a pool of emergency preparedness resources, most of them available in the 12 most commonly spoken languages in New York City in addition to English. These resources are widely distributed and can be downloaded from NYCEM’s website or mailed free of charge. NYCEM also has two multilingual emergency preparedness videos that are used during presentations. Presentations in languages other than English are conducted by bilingual staff, volunteers, or with a professional interpreter. A dedicated Cross-Cultural Outreach Coordinator organizes more than 120 emergency preparedness events for New York City’s migrant communities annually.

NYCEM conducts presentations to small groups in English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) classes, parent meetings in schools, and in local community-based organizations. NYCEM presenters tailor the presentation to the needs of the specific group and facilitate a discussion-based learning that incorporates the teaching of commonly-used emergency preparedness phrases in English, such as “evacuation”, “shelter in place”, “Go Bag” and others. People new to the United States often bring their own experiences from their countries, which can cause confusion and reluctance to access services. Some of the commonly asked questions include: “Do I need to pay to access an emergency shelter?”, “Will I be allowed to leave once I go to the shelter?, etc. These are questions NYCEM addresses so that people are not afraid to seek services and know how to prepare for emergencies.

To expand outreach to migrant communities, in 2013 NYCEM produced "The Storm", the 10th installment of the Emmy award-winning We Are New York (WANY) series geared towards adult English-language learners. The 25-minute episode focuses on emergency preparedness and access to City resources during emergencies and is used in conjunction with a toolkit of NYCEM’s preparedness guides and learning materials. The toolkit is designed for use by ESOL instructors, community-based groups, and volunteer conversation group leaders interested in helping New Yorkers improve their English while learning how to plan, prepare, and get informed during emergencies. This program addresses barriers to preparedness education and information among linguistically isolated communities through leveraging local networks. This safe classroom environment is where government can address concerns and answer questions of people who may be new to the country and unfamiliar with the United States.

NYCEM recognizes that undocumented migrants are hard to reach and generally mistrust government. To bridge this gap, NYCEM has a “Train the Trainer” program through which community leaders are trained to conduct emergency preparedness presentations. These trainings are generally conducted in English or Spanish. The community leaders go through a 3-hour training and are supported by NYCEM staff with emergency preparedness guides and talking points for their presentations.

Making emergency alerts accessible is important for the overall preparedness of New Yorkers. In the past two years, NYCEM has been working to make Notify NYC, the City of New York’s official source of information about emergencies, multilingual. Non-English speaking subscribers have access to the message in 13 different languages, audio format, and American Sign Language (ASL).  Notify NYC’s multilingual messages span a variety of emergency situations, including pre-scripted mass transit alerts, fire department activity, public health and safety notifications, utility alerts, weather alerts, alternate side parking updates, and downed trees notifications. NYCEM plans to expand and grow this program in the coming years. It is impossible for an emergency to happen in New York City and not affect migrants. To address language access and cultural considerations that come up during emergencies, NYCEM maintains a Language Access Protocol that describes the strategies to coordinate the response to these issues on a citywide level. This coordinated approach provides a flexible and scalable structure to quickly bring language access to the forefront of any emergency in a city where more than 200 different languages are spoken.

Through educational programming, emergency alerts notifications, and language access, NYCEM strives to address the needs of communities that have been historically difficult to reach. Although the barriers are many, a multifaceted approach that includes education and information dissemination in multiple languages has proven successful for increasing emergency preparedness in migrant communities in New York City.

NYCEM’s programs for migrant communities and the attention with which they are conceived and implemented to address migrant communities’ specific needs, are well in line with the scope of the MICIC Guidelines, and in particular the content of Guideline 6, on Establishing migrant-sensitive communication channels, and Guideline 9, on Communicating widely, effectively, and often with migrants on evolving crises and how to access help. These Guidelines specifically recommend the use of diverse, multiple, formal, and informal methods of communication aimed at addressing migrants’ specific barriers while also leveraging their capacities. The same programs are also a testament to the importance of coordinating with other relevant actors, like interpreters, volunteers, and community leaders in order to capitalize on different actors’ expertise and deliver a more effective service, as highlighted in Guideline 7 of the MICIC Guidelines, on Coordination Mechanisms.


Iskra Gencheva is the Deputy Director of Community Education and Language Access, NYC Emergency Management.