Multnomah County and the City of Portland hosted a workshop earlier this summer for community organizations preparing for wildfire smoke at TaborSpace in Southeast Portland. Attendees received N95 masks, information on preparing for wildfire smoke events, and indoor air quality monitors for community organizations to share with their members and clients.
People from 10 direct-service organizations attended, including Hacienda CDC, Home Forward, Latino Network, Meals on Wheels, and Community Energy Project. Most of the organizations attending said their buildings had experienced a smoke intrusion during smoky, hazardous air quality days, like those we had in September 2020. Some of the organizations sought advice on how to create cleaner air in community rooms that are open to the public. Other organizations, such as Neighbors for Clean Air and the Oregon Pacific Islander Coalition, were interested in the policies related to local emergency response.
Workshop attendees requested more technical expertise from government organizations. They identified a need for preparedness workshops; how and what to communicate; connections between smoke readiness and other programs; and what resources are available to residents during smoke events in the urban area. Many organizations noted that they are not informed about the policies or practices in place to prepare residents or provide relief. With increased technical expertise, organizations can better share information, distribute resources, engage in advocacy, and prepare prior to a wildfire smoke event.
Kate Szrom, COAD Coordinator for the City of Portland, shared some steps that community organizations can take to prepare for smoky days. Szrom highlighted the importance of having conversations ahead of time. One example for organizations to consider is having conversations with their facilities manager and HVAC contractor about preparing the HVAC system for smoke intrusion. Oregon OSHA also has a free consultation program that can recommend ways to improve ventilation.
Once organizations have their HVAC system ready with the best air filters it can handle, then add portable air cleaners to filter smoke pollution out. Most buildings are designed to bring fresh air in and move indoor air out, providing ventilation. If smoke is intruding indoors, don’t seal the windows and doors up tightly with plastic sheeting and tape, as you would in a "shelter-in-place" emergency like a chemical spill. If the smoke intrusion is heavy in areas known to be drafty, tenants may see smoke coming in through the bottoms of doors or edges of an older window. A rolled-up towel to block some of that smoke can be helpful.
Jonathan Cruz, a program specialist for air quality at the Multnomah County Health Department, shared tips for communicating about emergency preparedness on social media. The Northwest Air Quality Communicators group developed #SmokeReady, a toolkit for organizations to share information about smoke preparedness. The Smoke Ready Toolkit provides information about risk communication, images that can be shared throughout the wildfire season, and a tool for communicators to measure their impact in their community to assess future campaigns.
“We all use social media to communicate with the public,” Cruz said. “Not all organizations have the capacity to communicate preparedness regularly. The Smoke Ready Toolkit is a starting point for organizations to create a culture of preparedness for the people they serve.”
The Smoke Ready Toolkit is available in multiple languages and Cruz encourages organizations to create information or content that is relevant to the communities they serve. “We’re creating a cache of images for people to rely on, a source for organizations to find information that’s ready to be shared out and we need more voices speaking up about smoke readiness.”
Community organizations can encourage their community members, with little effort, to have a big impact.
There are many ways people can help. Hand out N95 masks to people who have to go outside to shop, go to work, or take the bus during hazy, smoky days. Open public space for educational workshop or extend the hours of services to allow clients additional time in a cool place.