Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Communicating with the public during an emergency

The National Journal has an interesting article about collecting and distributing information about ongoing disasters. With emerging media, we are no longer restricted to radio, television, and newspapers to disseminate critical time-sensitive information to residents who may be adversely affected.

Much of the article describes how emergency managers have difficulty collecting information about ongoing emergencies:
Better listening skills might have helped FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Almost a week after the storm's landfall, with evacuees running out of food and water at New Orleans' convention center, director Michael Brown infamously told CNN anchor Paula Zahn that "the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today."
As the article further says, some agencies are using the Internet and Twitter, a micro-blogging site, to monitor developing incidents and collect information in a real-time manner. Even photographs can be uploaded within seconds as we found following the aircraft crash at the Denver airport in December.

Some government agencies are moving toward adapting to these new methods of communication. In October FEMA opened a Twitter account but as of today they have not posted a single message or "Tweet". Brian Humphrey, a veteran firefighter and spokesman of the Los Angeles Fire Department, has been an innovator in using the Internet to "listen more accurately, to be able to gather information more clearly".

But in addition to "listening" or collecting information, emergency managers need to enhance their ability to distribute critical information to the public, as Wildfire Today said on September 10. Here is an excerpt:
One problem that needs to be solved is how to provide near-real-time information to residents whose safety is impacted by a wildland fire. In the 2003 Cedar fire near San Diego 15 civilians were killed--many of them while trying to evacuate from the Wildcat Canyon Road area with little or no warning. Many civilians were also killed while trying to evacuate from the Tunnel fire in Oakland in 1991. At least twice this year alone people have been burned to death in their homes when a wildland fire burned through their neighborhood.

Making real time information about the fire's location available, interpreting that data to decide what areas should evacuate and which areas are safe, then providing this data to the public in near-real-time is not a small task. But it could be argued that this should be the most important objective of fire managers, above and beyond the boiler-plate written into every Incident Action Plan of "provide for the safety of the public and firefighters".
Further in that post, we laid out a vision of how an enhanced emergency information distribution system could work.

No comments:

Post a Comment