A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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Agencies Pilot Training for Community-Based Organizations

August 2020

From food banks to childcare centers, community-based organizations (CBOs) play critical roles in many areas across the country. Many people rely on these services during “normal” times. When emergencies occur, however, these organizations can see a surge of need during and after the event.

But what happens if these CBOs themselves are affected by a disaster? CBOs can be more resilient when facing an emergency if they’ve planned ahead of time. To help prepare them, FEMA created a new training called Organizations Preparing for Emergency Needs (OPEN). A few community and state agencies had a chance to pilot the training before FEMA officially releases it.

CBO is a broad term for large and small organizations, non-profits, and businesses that provide valuable services to their community. They include volunteer and faith-based groups, as well as small businesses with local impact, that play a large role in the lives of millions of people across the country.

When CBOs are unable to stay open in the wake of a disaster, those who rely on their services on a daily basis may be deeply impacted. These organizations’ staff may be put at risk or lose income. The CBOs themselves may also face a challenging recovery, affecting livelihoods.

Before COVID-19 restrictions went into effect, FEMA conducted an in-person pilot class in Region I (Lowell, MA). In recent weeks, the piloted training was adapted to be taken online with an instructor. This means CBOs now have more options to take part in OPEN, especially while practicing social distancing.

The course introduces participants to 10 actions they can take to plan and prepare for incidents. These include ice storms, wildfires, pandemics and more. OPEN uses lectures, discussions, and activities. These help CBOs understand and lessen risks, determine important activities, start a communications plan, and protect information.

The virtual classroom format was piloted in two sessions in June in Colorado and New Hampshire. In February, 35 people attended an in-person session held by the local Medical Reserve Corps in Lowell, MA.

The Colorado training included 57 participants. Those taking part included area agencies that focus on aging populations, homeless services providers, a mayor, and others.

Charlotte Olsen, emergency manager at the Colorado Department of Human Services, said she was already getting requests for information on disaster planning due to the pandemic.

“Then this training came along, and I thought, ‘This is it’,” she said. “There were so many questions. This information couldn’t have come at a better time.”

To fit the needs of the community-based organizations, the training which can take up to two and a half hours was condensed to an hour. During the virtual training, participants typed questions and discussed information on an online platform. “It seemed really interactive for them and for us,” Olsen said.

Olsen thinks the training will be helpful as CBOs in her state grapple with disasters like wildfires and snowstorms at the same time as the pandemic. She noted the inclusion of information on dealing with overlapping emergencies was important.

A virtual OPEN training was also held during the New Hampshire Governor’s Conference on Volunteerism. Seventy CBO representatives participated in the virtual session including organizations serving school-age girls, people with disabilities, those in recovery from addiction, homeless families, low-income students, and more.

Representatives at the New Hampshire event mentioned that the importance of cross-training team members was the key takeaway from the event, and many said that they now plan to do so at their own organizations. In addition, they expressed interest in creating an emergency plan, digitizing records, and starting the conversation about preparedness.

When describing the training, participants most often used the words “informative,” “engaging,” and “useful.” A recording of the recent session in New Hampshire can be viewed at a dedicated OPEN site on the VolunteerNH website.

“One of the things I learned today is it’s so important to have a plan and practice the plan before an emergency happens on a ‘blue-sky day’,” said Lowell Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Jeffrey Winward after the in-person training.

Keep your eyes open for FEMA’s release of OPEN next month!

The photo featured in this article was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Disclaimer: The reader recognizes that the federal government provides links and informational data on various disaster preparedness resources and events and does not endorse any non-federal events, entities, organizations, services, or products. Please let us know about other events and services for individual and community preparedness that could be included in future newsletters by contacting FEMA-prepare@fema.dhs.gov.

This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.