Building California’s Disaster Preparedness

Alertar y Preparar LISTOS participants in Concord, California


“Planning, prevention, and preparation are the keys to success. And regardless of where people come from on the planet, when disaster strikes, whether it be a wildfire or famine, public health, or urban unrest, whatever it is, everyone is in a potential victim pool and we have an obligation to be able to reach out to those people to provide services, regardless of who they are,” according to Michael Williams, President and Executive Director of the Fire Services Training Institute.

For Michael Williams and his colleague Liliana Encinas, Alertar y Preparar LISTOS Program Manager, the community-based nature of the Alertar y Preparar LISTOS program has been the key to success. Built in 2010 on the foundation of community empowerment, Alertar y Preparar LISTOS was created with the understanding that there is a gap in disaster preparedness training for Spanish-speaking communities. Since its launch, Alertar y Preparar LISTOS has successfully helped vulnerable populations throughout California bridge cultural and linguistic barriers in disaster preparedness. Alertar y Preparar LISTOS is the direct result of the Santa Barbara County Aware & Prepare Initiative roundtable discussions with local public safety leaders and community-based organizations and is a grassroots approach focused on “reaching populations through trusted networks.”

With a curriculum and program that leverages other successful models and materials, including the Promotores Program in Carpinteria and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), class sizes average around 15-20, are highly attended, and are in constant demand. According to Liliana, “we finish a class and the participants spread the word and within weeks, we are already putting on another class” due to ongoing community requests.

Liliana has seen firsthand the impact that this program is having on empowering vulnerable communities. For her, one of the most meaningful classes was one that was hosted in collaboration with a church in Santa Barbara. Knowing that none of the participants had ever interacted with a firefighter before, Liliana decided that for graduation, she would invite one of Santa Barbara’s city fire battalion chiefs to attend the class. “Our objective with Alertar y Preparar LISTOS is that, yes we want to prepare people, but we also want people to feel comfortable in their community; that in a disaster setting, people in uniform are here to help, especially firefighters.” Even though the participants seemed intimidated at first, Liliana recalls that the battalion chief immediately connected with the attendees by participating in the entire class and answering every question that participants had regarding preparedness, emergency protocols, and community safety. This opened up a new and much needed rapport with the community and the fire department. Five participants even decided to train to become Alertar y Preparar LISTOS instructors because of the attendance of the fire chief.

With additional funding, Michael and the team look forward to spreading the curriculum and skills to other vulnerable communities throughout California. Alertar y Preparar LISTOS “is culturally relevant [and] it’s culturally competent,” Liliana asserts, and for both, they have every intention of expanding. The program is currently being translated into Armenian and Chinese. However, Michael asserts, “It’s more than just translation; it has to have the cultural aspect and that’s what makes LISTOS so unique.”

Liliana cites the great partnerships that Alertar y Preparar LISTOS has with the community, local emergency services, American Red Cross, and CaliforniaVolunteers. As they continue to build these relationships, Michael and Liliana are proud of the work that has been accomplished with CaliforniaVolunteers, the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and community partners and they look forward to the future of the program.

For Michael, this future can be summed up in three words: “It’s going national.”