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Disaster Communication

When it comes to disaster communications, what you say is as important as how you say it. Researchers at Temple University's Center for Preparedness, Research, Education and Practice (C-PREP), speaking today at the American Public Health Association meeting, argue in favor of points that we've made here before: transparency is key to successful disaster communication; and people are as likely or more likely to get information from non-traditional sources, so official communications can't rely solely on official outlets.

[Public Health Professor Sarah] Bass defines effective risk communications as timely, relevant and true.
"Effective communication during a disaster provides for people's doubts," she explained. "It can also reduce the mental stress and anguish that comes with anticipating and coping with disasters." [...] As the researchers expected, people universally rely on television and radio for information during an emergency. But surprisingly, they say, half of respondents would go to their clergy for information, highlighting the important role that non-traditional communicators play in emergency response.

An important stumbling block to effective communication, however, is the public's tendency to mis-evaluate threats. Respondents to surveys undertaken as part of the Temple research described a greater fear of events like intentional contamination of food and water supplies than of more commonplace -- and more likely -- problems such as major storms. C-PREP seeks to improve the ability of the public to respond to disasters, in part by educating the public about how to prepare for realistic risks and dangers.

Of course, it's not just everyday citizens who find unlikely-but-harrowing disasters to be more captivating than realistic concerns. Security specialist Bruce Schneier frequently discusses a phenomenon he calls the "movie plot" problem, where officials in charge of planning for disasters become obsessed with threats that would make terrific summertime movie fare, but are vanishingly unlikely in the real world. He covered the concept in a recent essay for Wired:

We all do it. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats. We imagine anthrax spread from crop dusters. Or a contaminated milk supply. Or terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Before long, we're envisioning an entire movie plot, without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we're scared. [...] We need to defend against the broad threat of terrorism, not against specific movie plots. Security is most effective when it doesn't make arbitrary assumptions about the next terrorist act.

The problem, according to Schneier, is the reliance on systems that depend upon knowing the threat ahead of time. In a discussion (see comments) of the US federal reaction to hurricane Katrina, Schneier argued:

The reason "we didn't know" is a valid explanation to them is that their security systems depend on knowing. I want them to build security that works even if they didn't know.
Because they won't.

One way to build such security is to focus not on the particulars of a projected threat (natural or otherwise), but on strengthening lines of communication and information. As WorldChanging ally David Stephenson frequently notes, citizens empowered by good information and usable communication tools make for powerful first responders. Resilient networks and transparent sources of information are far better ways of preventing and responding to disasters than FAA restrictions on pointy objects or even emergency "grab and go" kit checklists.

Comments (2)

Jamais: I just blogged on this issue yesterday, looking at the recent Wired article on how Portland has created a successful 2-way emergency alert system that empowers the public and treats them as equals:

Another way of arriving at Bruce's point is that there are basically two ways of looking at disaster management. From one perspective the challenge is to prevent unexpected events. From the other, the task is to adapt smoothly to unexpected events. This is roughly the difference between a wall and a river.


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