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Communication Is Critical in an Emergency

April 16, 2007

That much should be obvious to everyone in Emergency Management. That we’re still woefully unprepared to communicate effectively with each other in an emergency is a black eye to the field and all of us who work tirelessly to remedy the situation. The 15 and 16 April, 2007 Nor’Easter that effectively flooded the East Coast gave me a front row seat to another glaring lack of effective communication.

Philadelphia and New Jersey were hit hard by the gale force winds and soaking rains. The acting Governor of New Jersey declared a State of Emergency, and asked folks to stay home. No such declaration was made in Philadelphia or Pennsylvania and workers and families struggled to find a way to get to work and/or school. Information at 0700 was sketchy. Public transit was delayed at best, and non-functioning in some situations. Road closings due to standing water and accidents were in the usual places in addition to other unexpected places. Lots of people took whatever information was available to them at the time and set off on their commutes. A good amount of this information was incomplete and, in some cases, wrong. This put more people than needed to be in harm’s way and exacerbated the situation for all involved. What caused this problem? There was no central information clearinghouse, and a typical Philadelphia over-dependence on the private sector to provide public alerts.

I certainly understand that in a disaster situation, communication between responders and emergency managers is of paramount importance, and should be concentrated on by all communication staff. In a more typical emergency, however, communication between those responding is generally well-established and reliable. Communication with the public, however, is not regarded as a important part of the initial response. To use a business world concept, the return on investment of type this solution is huge. One staffer, working with the communications staff (under a PIO), updating a website (or, public access television program) with all official statements (eg. government offices are open/closed, schools are open/closed, residents are advised to avoid a particular area, commuters are encouraged leave late for work if possible, etc.), posting the latest pertinent updates (eg. road closings, airport delays, police activity, etc.), and hosting relevant contact information. Philadelphia residents, and I presume most other big cities and states, have nothing approaching this type of resource. If used reliably in emergency situations, citizens could learn to turn this official government outlet to confirm media rumors or make plans, as opposed to the current “system” of flipping television stations and waiting for the traffic and transit announcements every ten to thirty minutes on the radio.

Given time and effort, this website could become an important cog in emergency situations, helping alleviate problems and bypass a media that is contractually obliged to play a certain number of commercial messages an hour, thereby delaying the delivery of critical information.  People yearn for information in emergencies, why would we voluntarily relinquish the ability to provide that for our citizens?

On a side note, my condolences to the Virginia Tech family.

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