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Council bridges culture gap for county Latinos during times of crisis

POSTED September 21, 2012 11:29 p.m.

In an emergency, every second matters.

But what if emergency personnel can’t communicate with someone they are trying to help, due to a language barrier? Or if evacuees refuse to open the door, because they’re afraid of how police might treat them?

Those are serious issues for the large Latino community in Stanislaus County. And those issues were the impetus behind the 2005 founding of the Latino Emergency Council, a community-based, volunteer organization dedicated to improving emergency preparedness and emergency response in the Latino community.

“We know disasters will occur,” said LEC Board President Dale Butler. “We know we'll have emergencies. So when they do occur, we want to make sure we have an impact, and good communication with Latinos."

Originally founded as a partnership between Stanislaus County, El Concilio, and the Hispanic Leadership Council, the LEC works with the Stanislaus County Office of Emergency Services in emergency situations. The county relied on the LEC to disseminate information during the heat emergency of 2006, West Nile Virus outbreaks, and the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic.

Since its founding, the council has distributed 10,000 pieces of emergency preparedness information at community events and festivals. And, through a partnership with the Modesto Fire Department, the LEC trained 120 Spanish-speaking Community Emergency Response volunteers. Before the council got involved, the department had only five Spanish-speaking emergency volunteers.

The LEC has won awards for its efforts. Yet the problem of reaching out to the county’s Latino community remains, in times of emergency.

So on Thursday, the LEC held its first Latino Emergency Leadership Summit in Modesto. The event is believed to be the first of its kind in California, and possibly in the nation.

“Today is the opening of a dialog that is meant to continue,” said County spokesman David Jones, who sits on the LEC Board. "… Today is a historic day."

The event drew more than 120 representatives from more than 85 local organizations, including Turlock Police and Fire, the Turlock Irrigation District, and the City of Ceres. Even a diplomat from the Mexican Consulate attended.

Modesto Regional Fire Authority Chief Gary Hinshaw keynoted the event, discussing the myriad disasters which could face the region.

From a repeat of 1997’s flooding, to earthquakes, to fires, to pandemics, the county faces numerous natural threats. And the county must be prepared to deal with manmade disasters as well, like train accidents, chemical spills, or large shootings, which could overwhelm local emergency rooms.

In the heat of disaster response, Hinshaw said emergency staff oftentimes doesn’t have time to conduct the outreach it should. That’s where the LEC, and the 85 represented organizations, come in.

“We have to communicate to all facets of our community, and you are that link,” Hinshaw said. “For us to be effective, it’s all of us.”

Following Hinshaw’s speech and lunch, attendees broke into groups to discuss barriers to communicating with Latino populations – and how to overcome those barriers.

“I think the primary barrier is trust,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson. “We have to build these relationships in advance of emergencies.”

The LEC will collect and review the findings from Thursday’s summit, drafting a plan to better achieve the council’s goals.

But representatives won’t wait until the plan is complete to put to work the knowledge gained Wednesday. After learning about the issues, many said they would work immediately to reach out to Latino populations.

“They wouldn’t have a forum like this if there wasn’t a problem,” said Ceres Chief of Police and Acting City Manager Art de Werk. “We need to acknowledge that problem and deal with it.”

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