Before Disaster Strikes

Overview of the PHRAT risk assessment tool

Environmental disasters, mass violence, disease outbreaks, and other dangers to health and safety keep cities in constant planning mode. Now, thanks to a public health risk assessment tool (PHRAT) developed at Drexel, Philadelphia and other regions across the United States are better prepared for the next major threat.

Created by researchers at the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at the Dornsife School of Public Health, PHRAT helps public health departments pinpoint risks to specific areas and guide plans to mitigate damage. Its design and the six-year experience of its use by public health agencies (the tool was created in 2012), including identifying the largest threats to Pennsylvania — no, one is not the lanternfly — were published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.

According to the paper, the biggest looming concerns that keep Pennsylvania’s public health experts up at night are weather-related emergencies, flooding, utility interruptions, and local infectious disease outbreaks. So how does this tool help prepare for that?

PHRAT — accessible nationwide on the Center’s website — helps planners determine the likelihood of specific incidents occurring and assess the potential severity of such incidents on at-risk populations. The tool focuses strictly on public health agencies and how they can collaborate with partners to ensure the entire community has access to emergency response resources as part of short- or long-term recovery when needed. The assessment tool — supported by funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – has been used in parts of Vermont, Hawaii, Arizona and California.

“For decades, public health planning has been an evolving science lacking consensus about the most effective way to measure risk and plan for what tomorrow may hold,” said Esther Chernak, MD, director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication and an associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health. “This comprehensive platform studies 20 common hazards and is easily adaptable for any area. We’re using measurable indicators to assess impact, which keeps results objective and actionable.”

Here in Philadelphia, the tool helps the Philadelphia Department of Public Health prioritize planning for a range of different public health emergencies and identify high-risk populations that might be most affected.
“For planning purposes, it is very helpful to have a tool that helps us to prioritize the threats that are most probable and would likely have severe outcomes,” said Jessica Caum, a program manager for the City of Philadelphia’s Bioterrorism and Public Health Readiness Program. “PHRAT also helps us efficiently allocate staff and other resources to support those planning initiatives.”

The number one ranked threat in Philadelphia? Caum says that’s pandemic influenza, which happens when a novel strain of the flu emerges that can spread worldwide. But coastal storms, flooding, utility outages, small outbreaks of infectious diseases, and seasonal influenza – the annual epidemic of influenza that occurs every winter – loom large.

It’s time to get your flu shot.

Media interested in talking to Chernak should contact Greg Richter at 215-895-2614 or

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