For Everybody’s Sake: Enhancing Emergency Communication Policies & Practices.

By Federico Subervi, Ph.D.

Even in the age of the Internet and smart phones,when inclement weather is approaching or occurring,the majority of people—especially those with limited resources—turn to their radio or TV stations to seek guidance that can help them assure their safety. Unfortunately for millions of Spanish speakers and other U.S. residents whose primary language is not English, emergency news and information about an impending storm or some other calamity can be very limited or not available at all.  Those residents are left outside the reach of crucial information that could save their lives and properly guide them on how to proceed so that whatever they do does not negatively affect them or others who might well informed.

 As documented in a report entitled An Achilles Heel in Emergency Communications: The Deplorable  Policies and Practices Pertaining to Non-English Speaking Populations, and also discussed during the Latinos a Salvo regional forum that assessed strategies to improve the safety of Latinos and other vulnerable populations in the Central Texas region, the aforementioned scenario is currently present in this region, which is home to over 350,000 Spanish-speakers.  As pointed out in the report:

• Government agencies responsible for emergency communications are not fully or properly staffed to produce and disseminate multiple language messages be it in person, printed materials, or on their websites.

• Many but not all Spanish-language broadcast media in Central Texas offer their audiences emergency weather alerts, yet none of the Spanish- language radio stations have news staffs or operations that could provide additional emergency news or information, especially after daylight operating hours.

• Standardized and efficient regulations are lacking to guide what broadcast media should do in emergencies or the content of their emergency communications in English or Spanish.

Scenarios similar to these are most certainly repeated across the country, home to more than 12 million Spanish-speakers and millions of others, most U.S. citizens and legal residents whose main language is not English.

The causes of that current state of affairs and the remedies to improve them are complex and multifaceted.  The shortcoming do not stem from any ill will of any individual, broadcast media, government agency or organization, each of which work laboriously to serve their constituents or audiences.  The report points to numerous ongoing positive efforts to remedy the current limitations. Still, the modus operandi is not optimal for overcoming the current shortcomings to assure the maximum possible safety and well being that all residents of every community deserve, regardless of the language they speak.

Applying the analogy and often stated wisdom that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, it might be appropriate to suggest that the security of any community is only as sound as is the knowledge of its least informed citizens.  It would then be reasonable to affirm that assessments and prompt improvements of the emergency communication policies and practices pertaining to non-English language speakers are significant and valuable efforts toward the assurance that a whole community is potentially safer during crisis situations.  We cannot wait for a calamity to claim hundreds or thousands of lives to subsequently reflect that the victims could have been saved “if they just would have known…”

 The time is to take action is now, including the enactment of FCC policies directed at requiring not only multi-language emergency alerts, but also that every community have at least one designated radio station that would provide a constant flow of news and information to assist the non-English speakers in the preparation, mitigation and recovery stemming from inclement weather or any other calamity.

 For a copy of the full report, go to the Research section of the web site of the Center for the Study of Latino Media & Markets:

The Emergency Communications Project and the Latinos a Salvo forum were made possible thanks to a grant from the McCormick Foundation.

Federico Subervi, Ph.D. is professor and Director of the Center of Journalism & Mass Communication, Texas University – San Marcos, TX