Vulnerability and Technology in Emergency Public Information

Note: This blog post appeared as an article in the April 2013 version of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Bulletin

When emergencies occur, getting timely, accurate, and actionable information to the public is of vital importance.  The methods by which we generate warning messages, disseminate them to the public, and receive feedback on emergency situations have been, and should continue to be, informed by the demographics and unique natures of our populations.

Basic communication modeling suggests that we look at the circular nature of how people communicate to inform the choices of warning messages & methods. Assessments of the  strengths and limitations of a communicator, message, recipient and feedback method are all important to choosing the medium by which an emergency response official notifies the public of protective actions.

With the emergence of new technologies developed to enhance the ability to communicate with residents during an emergency, it is important to take a moment to step back and analyze their usability, availability, and relevance during a disaster.

Assessing Vulnerability

The development of plans for communicating with the public should follow the basic process by which emergency managers develop plans in all other functional areas. Rather than solely looking at physical and geographic hazard vulnerability, we should also look at the social characteristics of a population to better inform the message and medium in emergency public information.

Limitations in access to technology, English language proficiency, and societal stigmas have to be understood before selecting an emergency public information message and channel.  Having an informed understanding of your population, especially in areas with diverse cultures, languages, socio-economic statuses and other social characteristics; will help you in reaching the most people with the message you want to deliver, in a way they can trust and understand.

Working with publicly available data, emergency managers can develop maps, graphics and GIS analyses that inform them of these characteristics, and work towards developing policies for warning a population both in a  localized incident, and on a large scale.

Data can not be the only method by which we analyze vulnerability and ensure that our emergency public information efforts are effective. Understanding social mores, the relationship some groups have with government, and  cultural differences in the way people communicate and build community should also inform our pre-event, response and recovery messaging.   This is a daunting task for even a small jurisdiction, let alone a city of millions.  That is why it is important to engage community groups ahead of time, and develop relationships with social and moral leaders within these communities to act as an advocate for your agency, and to tap into pre-existing social structures for disseminating emergency information.

IPAWS and the Way Forward

In the United States, the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS) has received much deserved praise for simplifying the process of issuing warnings.  As we go into our communities and educate them on the public-facing functionality of IPAWS, we can not afford to neglect the public’s social vulnerabilities, as well as the dependence of many of these systems on electricity and connectivity.

Previous disasters have shown us that when information infrastructure is compromised, the reach of technologically-based warning tools is severely limited.  Therefore, part of our community outreach strategies should be informing the public of technological limitations, and informing them of methods by which they can receive official, accurate and timely emergency information when power or connectivity is lost.

Understanding a community’s characteristics, including the availability of certain technologies and the relevance of an English-language message should be considered as we move forward in planning.

As emergency managers, we can write plans all day long – but if these plans aren’t based on the characteristics of our populations, they will have little effect on the reach and effectiveness of our messaging.

Technology plays a key role in the way we communicate with the public, and as our world becomes more and more connected, it provides emergency managers with more tools for quickly sharing protective actions and incident information. It also may help turn our populations into intelligence-gathering for our operations.  Looking forward to future advances of technology, we can see both the positives and negatives of an interconnected society, and working within our communities, we can build emergency public information programs which work toward meeting the needs of every resident.