Douglas County working to implement multi-language alert system

Translations were not available for messages sent during COVID-19 pandemic, Nox Crete chemical fire
Douglas County is working to offer emergency alerts in multiple different languages.
Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 6:33 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Emergency alerts are meant to save lives. When people can’t read them it can be dangerous.

“People could get sick. People could potentially die,” said Haznnah Vlach, the founder of Restoring Dignity, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees and immigrants in Omaha.

The Douglas County Health Department gave the organization about $20,000 to create a new emergency alert program that could get important messages translated and understood into all homes — not just ones that speak English.

“We believe everyone should have access to lifesaving, critical emergency alerts,” Vlach said.

According to the U.S. Census, in Omaha, four out of every 25 people speak a language other than English at home.

During the pandemic, the nonprofit worked with the health department to create public health videos translated into 14 different languages because the messaging was primarily in English or Spanish.

Last May, another major health concern erupted in downtown Omaha: the Nox Crete chemical fire.

6 News reported emergency alerts only went out in English in a community with a significant Spanish-speaking population.

In the aftermath of the fire, 6 News spoke with a nearby resident who primarily spoke Spanish. He said that even though his iPhone settings were adjusted to Spanish, the emergency alert came in English. In response, the Douglas County Emergency Management Agency said it would update its software to push warnings in Spanish when needed.

Since then, the health department has expanded its partnership with Restoring Dignity to find a grassroots solution for the dozens of other languages spoken in the metro.

“With the Nox Crete chemical fire, it became even more apparent that an effective process for providing emergency alerts to our refugee and immigrant community members was necessary,” said Douglas County Health Department Community Planner, Andy Wessel.

The nonprofit later learned that videos online might not be the best way to get the information out.

“The vast majority, I think it was over 90% of the families that said they get their news from community leaders,” said Vlach. “That’s when we realized we had to pivot. Our goal with this is that when an emergency happens, alerts will go out to these community leaders who will then pass the information along to their communities.”

She compared the network to a listserv email list for community leaders. They’re still working out what department would be responsible for the list.

Paw Bway Htoo is a refugee and turned community leader in Omaha. She said a program like this would help her help others.

“If we have a system where everything comes in one place, I have the answer to answer everybody’s question, it’ll make my life easier.”

Since the program launched this week, more than 36 community leaders have volunteered to join the network.

Vlach said she hopes the program will be ready for use in the next couple of months.