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close this bookDisasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 39 - July, 1989 (PAHO)
View the documentDisaster preparedness training: Who should it reach and how?
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Disaster preparedness training: Who should it reach and how?

The response by the health sector of a disaster-affected country is a revealing indicator of just how much emphasis has been placed on strengthening national institutions and training local health personnel. For the development of human resources - and not the stockpiling of equipment and material - is the key to sound disaster management.

School children and their teachers have become receptive target groups of disaster preparedness training. In Costa Rica, the Ministry of Education has embarked on a successful program aimed at primary school children. In Pinar del Río, Cuba, children are taught first aid skills through role playing. (Photo: Carlos Gaggero/PAHO)

Target Groups

Keeping in mind the vulnerability of each country, who needs to be trained? Perhaps we can approach this question from another angle. Who provides essential health assistance during and immediately following disaster situations? The list is lengthy, considering that the health response to disasters mobilizes all disciplines and depends, to a certain extent, on decisions made by other key sectors. In the Americas, the audience has broadened to include the following groups:

· health professionals from all disciplines (hospital staff and administrators, sanitary engineers, epidemiologists, etc.) Few health sector roles remain unexposed to the basic concepts of disaster preparedness and response;

· special non-health responders play a decisive role in emergencies. No component of this group holds more power than the mass media. Exposing the media to the most commonly-held myths prior to disasters will prevent the dissemination of misinformation regarding health problems after disasters. It will also reduce pressure on decision makers to commit resources to ineffective but highly-visible campaigns. Other key groups include fire and police departments and the armed forces;

· Ministries of Foreign Affairs represent a vital link with the outside world. Too often, requests for medical or other health relief are made by or accepted at the diplomatic level without giving due consideration to technical or scientific criteria. A better understanding of health issues in diplomatic missions can only facilitate the effectiveness of international health relief;

· local communities have the first and last word in the response to emergencies - the first word because outside assistance, especially at the international level, always arrives too late; the last word because most often the affected community is quickly left on its own once the acute emergency phase has passed. Training communities is essential but challenging;

· school children and their teachers are extremely receptive to simple health preparedness education and training. Working together with Ministries of Education, this strategy has proven to be an effective, durable means of influencing public opinion concerning emergency health matters.


Disaster preparedness training should be based on the following policies and strategies:

· training of trainers - not all organizations nor all training programs can reach the grassroots level, but preparing a national cadre of experienced trainers is a positive first step. This is an ongoing process, given the variety of disciplines that disaster preparedness encompasses and the ever-expanding scope of issues it addresses. Training of trainers will also ensure the multiplier effect of training;

· courses, workshops, simulation exercises, and drills, all help to create a critical mass of disaster-literate and influential health professionals. But there comes a time when this effort cannot be completely sustained by the international community and disaster preparedness must be institutionalized nationally for long-term survival. One way in which countries can accomplish this is to promote the inclusion of disaster preparedness in the curriculum of schools of medicine, nursing, and engineering;

· once a mechanism has been established to broadly transmit general skills, efforts can be concentrated on developing new areas of technical expertise. Because the field of disaster preparedness is ever expanding, training programs and materials must also be dynamic and up-to-date;

· developing training and educational material and making it available at no cost to qualified institutions and individuals is indispensable if the multiplier effect of training is to be successful. These materials support teaching institutions, Ministries of Health, and NGOs in their role as trainers.