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Anchorage Puts the Unity in Community

  • ​​A small group of middle school students learning to ride bicycles spotted a moose on the loose as they pedaled along an Alaskan trail.

    They easily could have panicked, fearing the big animal might charge them. Instead, the students applied skills they were taught in Bikeology, a bicycle education program that is part of Anchorage’s Safe Communities America initiative, and steered clear of trouble.

    “The signal went out to reroute the riders to avoid an encounter,” said Melanie Sutton, curriculum coordinator for health and physical education in the Anchorage School District.

    “The moose was able to peacefully continue his afternoon snack, and our students were able to demonstrate critical thinking skills to avoid a conflict. A bike ride, yes, but also a practical application of knowledge, skills, conflict resolution and a truly Alaskan adventure,” Sutton said.​

    Developing a Model


    Sutton and Anchorage School District leaders are proud partners in a community coalition delivering local safety solutions for local safety concerns. Anchorage became an accredited International Safe Community in 1998 and joined Safe Communities America, an accreditation program of the National Safety Council, in 2007.

    Anchorage Safe Community is part of a growing national initiative where communities engage local partners who care about safety, use data to identify their leading causes of injuries and deaths, make a plan to address the most pressing injury issues and measure the impact.

    Due in no small part to the efforts of Marcia Howell, Anchorage was reaccredited in 2011 as an International and National Safe Community and today serves as a model for how Safe Communities should look. Howell is the executive director at the Alaska Injury Prevention Center, the lead agency for Anchorage Safe Community. She also is recognized as the face of the local safety team.

    “Following the public health model, we work with multiple partners to assess issues in our community, research how to improve those conditions and collaboratively work to promote and evaluate long-term changes in our community and state,” Howell said.

    For more than two decades, Anchorage Safe Community has tackled some unique challenges confronting its 270,000 residents. A gateway to vast Alaskan wilderness, Anchorage has breathtaking beauty. But its harsh climate and short days with little sunlight can contribute to safety concerns, including high rates of depression, and drug and alcohol use.     

    “At winter solstice, we only have about four hours between sunrise and sunset – less when you take into account the mountain range to the east,” Howell said.

    Howell said citizens and coalition groups have set a goal to decrease suicide and suicide attempts. She said Alaska often ranks in the top three among all states in both categories. She said new efforts are under way to partner with state officials and other Anchorage-area coalitions on a heroin prevention project, and a bullying prevention and wellness program for 14-24 year-olds.

    Another important area for Anchorage Safe Community is teen motor vehicle crash prevention. The Buckle Up Campaign has been a decade-long commitment to increase seat belt use among teens. Implemented in all Anchorage high schools, the program utilizes peer-to-peer techniques to engage students. Since the program’s inception, seat belt use in these high schools has increased about 25%. ​

    Driven by Data


    In Anchorage, a data advisory team helps guide the process. The data is clear: Anchorage Safe Community is driving down injuries and making the community safer.

    • In 2005, 41% of Anchorage-area students said they had a drink in the past 30 days; by 2013, that rate had dropped to 24%
    • In 2015, 10 student groups participated in Raise Your Voice​, sharing media projects with more than 900 students to promote safe driving behaviors; this resulted in 98% of students in one high school saying they would stop driving distracted if a friend asked them
    • The Alaska Injury Prevention Center conducted 363 car seat checks in 2015
    • Booster seat use jumped from 52% in 2009 to 79% in 2013
    • Statewide seat belt use climbed from 83% in 2006 to 89% in 2015; at the end of the 2016 campaign, 91% of high school students were buckled up
    • Percentage of Anchorage high school students who disagree or strongly disagree that they feel alone in their life decreased by 9% from 2003-2015.

    It Takes a Village


    Howell and Anchorage Safe Community have found strong community connections are a key to getting at the problems. She said while the Alaska Injury Prevention Center remains the lead agency for creating a Safe Community environment for Anchorage, the center collaborates with many others, including:

    • Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Epi Scientific Advisory Committee
    • Anchorage Collaborative Coalitions
    • Spirit of Youth
    • AK Violent Death Reporting System Advisory Committee
    • Alaska Traffic Records Coordinating Committee
    • Healthy Alaskans 2020
    • Anchorage Vision Zero Workgroup
    • Anchorage Youth Development Coalition
    • Alaska Impaired Driving and Occupant Protection Task Forces

    Addressing safety issues can be complex and often requires people with different skill sets and experiences putting their heads together to educate the public and make changes to improve safety. The Safe Communities model helps communities come together and prioritize safety to solve those local safety issues. 

    “Because Anchorage has a relatively small population, we often find there is only one degree of separation between people, and people are likely to take care of people they know,” Howell said.​

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The National Safety Council eliminates preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road through leadership, research, education and advocacy.

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