A videotaped interview of four government employees responsible for handling public information functions after the August 24, 2014 Napa, California earthquake reveals real challenges and inherent conflicts between quickly informing the public, fulfilling incident command responsibilities and ensuring the safety of family and loved ones. This video, posted by Kerry Shearer, a Sacramento based communications professional should be reviewed by every emergency management organization, after which people should ask themselves; What would I have done differently? Yes, “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” is what emergency responders do best. But, it is also how they prepare for the next crisis. The intent is to learn, not criticize. So, what did I pick up from watching the video?
First, the employees did a great job in trying circumstances. They quickly dealt with their own family safety considerations, contacted their supervisors, and reported to work as fast as they could. Therein lies the problem.
PIO’s and IC’s should seriously reconsider response plans that require everyone to immediately respond to a centralized physical location immediately after a large scale unanticipated disaster, especially as it relates to PIO functions. Commuting equals message delay, unless the PIO has a chauffeur (yeah, right). In the Napa disaster, the PIO’s had to travel several miles to their designated EOCs, which had yet to be set up and configured. They then had to craft and post media releases. Reportedly, this combination of factors contributed to a delay of up to 1.5 hours before the first official Napa message was posted. In today’s hyper-connected world, this might as well have been 1.5 days.
Emergency managers and staff should seriously consider implementing and training on web based virtual EOC mobile applications allowing them to remotely coordinate the response from safe and secure locations, effectively speeding up initial reaction times and situational awareness (assuming some level of cell/satellite/cable internet coverage. Message templates should be developed and pre-approved, allowing the PIO to immediately send out basic messages, without having to worry about having a job the next day.
Lastly, I was surprised to hear Twitter was not considered one of the primary social media platforms in the initial public messaging phase. Twitter, Facebook, and any proprietary mass notification platforms like PIER and Nixle, should be considered the minimum for initial monitoring and messaging. For anyone who needs convincing on the power of the crowd and the influence of Twitter during crisis; watch this short video by Gerald Baron from last year.