emPOWERing Public Health: Maricopa County, Arizona

Nov 07, 2017 | Michelle Bahk

Addressing the needs of electricity-dependent community members can be challenging for any health department. The Arizona Department of Health Services and Maricopa County Department of Public Health have addressed their ability to meet the needs of this population by using the tools of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) emPOWER Initiative, developed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

Maricopa County is one of the most populous counties in the United States, and is also one of the hottest. The city of Phoenix experiences more days of over 100-degree weather than any other city in the country. When the county experiences power outages, it needs to be prepared for community members who are at-risk individuals that are dependent on medical equipment and live at home. Noting these facts, ASPR approached the state of Arizona and Maricopa County with the opportunity to act as one of the initial locations participating in an exercise to decipher how data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) could be used to prioritize resources for communities impacted by the loss of power.

This exercise would utilize the HHS emPOWER Initiative which assists local health departments with their planning and response efforts, focusing on addressing the needs of at-risk community members living independently within the community. Utilizing Medicare billing data through a partnership with CMS, the tools of the HHS emPOWER Initiative provides state and local health departments and their partners with the situational awareness to prepare for those individuals who utilize durable medical equipment, dialysis, oxygen tanks, home health care services, and other assistance that requires access to electricity.

The state of Arizona, Maricopa County, and their partners participated in an exercise scenario where an imagined storm would result in a major power outage and hazardous travel conditions for power company crews. The goals of this exercise called on all of the players to use the HHS emPOWER Initiative to provide situational awareness and safety recommendations, provide guidance and information on accessing assistance and resources to avoid greater impacts to the community, quickly identify and assess the level of needs in the community, and provide appropriate support and services to responders.

Through the exercise, the state of Arizona and Maricopa County found that the abilities of the HHS emPOWER Initiative would be very useful for their preparedness and response activities. The state, the county, and partners found that the HHS emPOWER Initiative data informed their decision making regarding prioritization of power restoration; assisted with forecasting equipment needs, shortages, and resource requests; and assisted the healthcare coalition with surge preparation and management.

Additionally, the health department found that the information provided by the HHS emPOWER Initiative could be used for innovative applications outside of the loss of power. These purposes include: assisting individuals who lack mobility and would need to be evacuated during flooding scenarios, identifying those individuals who may be impacted by poor air quality resulting from large fires and other events impacting particulate matter in the air through the use of oxygen related medical equipment, and more. “The one thing I hope planners don’t get stuck in is that (emPOWER) is just about power, ” noted Theresa Ehnert, Bureau Chief, Public Health Emergency Preparedness, Arizona Department of Health Services.

“While it was developed mostly for a disaster or major event mindset, it really has so much potential for preparedness and mitigation.” added Chris Lyons, Nurse Healthcare Coordinator for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health. “Knowing something as simple as CMS data on oxygen-dependent individuals….There is potential for an awareness on our part that there could be…serious effects (for that population).”

When thinking about the HHS emPOWER Initiative’s potential, Maricopa County and the state of Arizona cannot help but express their excitement. “It really does inform decision-making for the prioritization of the power restoration. It informs us for public and healthcare system alerts, situational awareness, and guidance…forecasting supply and equipment needs, clearly.” said Lyons.

“I’m encouraged that ASPR’s vision was that we need something like this to help the community. It’s been a very helpful tool.” added Ehnert.

However, they both stress the importance of bringing partners to the table to ensure that resources is being utilized as effectively as possible. “If there is somebody unfamiliar with it, then I recommend bringing everyone to the table to discuss how (HHS emPOWER) could be utilized.” Ehnert noted. “If we use all of our tools together, as planning partners, we could have a targeted and effective response.”

Additionally, both noted the importance of incorporating experts in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into planning activities with the HHS emPOWER Initiative. “We had to engage our GIS mapper. I think that’s a really critical piece, the availability of that skill and expertise. Someone that really understands how to use data, how to make it fit…” stated Lyons.

Resources:

  • emPOWER Map 2.0 (publicly accessible HHS emPOWER Map Tool): https://empowermap.hhs.gov/
  • NACCHO Tool – HHS emPOWER Fact Sheet: NACCHO Publications Site
  • https://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-broome-county-new-york/
  • https://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-fairfax-county-virginia/
  • https://www.nacchostories.org/empowering-public-health-city-of-new-orleans/

About Michelle Bahk

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