As Eden Prairie becomes increasingly diverse, the outer-ring western suburb is looking to start a first-of-its-kind program in Minnesota, training about 20 residents from different ethnic and cultural groups to help during disasters and emergencies.
Eden Prairie residents — from Somalis and Vietnamese to Indians and Hispanics — will be trained in outreach and emergency preparation so they can help firefighters and police officers with everything from light search-and-rescues to door-to-door patrolling, translating or making sure officers follow cultural norms.
The program, which starts recruiting this month, will be the first in Minnesota along with one started by Bloomington Public Health, which serves Bloomington, Edina and Richfield, and is partnering with Burnsville and Minneapolis.
“Because our city diversity is changing dramatically and because certain populations aren’t comfortable with people in uniform, the [cultural services unit] will allow us to take a person … who can be liaisons to us,” Eden Prairie Assistant Fire Chief Rik Berkbigler said. “When we go door to door, they’re more likely to be trusted. And they’re a good community connector.”
Like other suburbs, the city has grown increasingly diverse in recent years, now boasting 54 languages spoken by its residents. The city had a 96 percent white population nearly 25 years ago, according to census data. Now, that’s about 80 percent as more immigrant groups from countries that include Russia, India and Somalia move to the 62,000-resident suburb for its schools and safe community.
So to Berkbigler, it made sense to have law enforcement more engaged, training immigrant families in emergency responses and having volunteers to help with culturally specific languages and cultural insight in incidents, such as last year’s record flooding.
“It just makes everyone in your city feel included,” he said, “and have an avenue to learn about emergency preparedness.”
When a tornado struck north Minneapolis in 2011, Hennepin County found that there were gaps in getting information out to every cultural group, said Rodger Amon, county supervisor for emergency preparedness. The same happened in Bloomington after the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, when minority groups didn’t know to show up for vaccinations.
So in 2013, the county decided to start a cultural services unit (CSU) to help with community outreach. Brooklyn Center became the first city with a CSU, followed by Minneapolis and then Brooklyn Park in 2014.
Now, Eden Prairie will merge CSU with its Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) — the largest in the state, with 120 volunteers trained in disaster preparation. As a result, the CERT-CSU team will help with both community outreach and emergency preparation, giving volunteers training in everything from interpretation skills to medical resources.
“The demographics have changed,” said Lillian McDonald of Emergency and Community Health Outreach (ECHO), which is helping Eden Prairie. “As we look around in our new world, it’s much more diverse than it ever has been. Businesses have to pay attention to that [and] government has to pay attention to that.”
Eden Prairie’s six-week training program, funded by a $15,000 county grant, will start April 7. Volunteers will then do monthly training like CERT volunteers and help at events like the Polar Plunge, light search-and-rescue operations like the 2013 search for Mandy Matula, and help law enforcement.
Bloomington Public Health’s program also starts in April, working specifically with Somali immigrants.
“The community can help and not just wait until firefighters and police get to the scene,” said Yahye Mohamed, who is helping organize Bloomington’s program. “We’re giving them tools they can take home … and help their families and neighbors.”