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There's an article making the rounds on the Internet purported to be from an MIT scientist that offers a very lucid explanation of the crisis at the Japanese nuclear plants and why they do not pose a major hazard similar to the meltdown at Chernobyl. While I am no expert on nuclear reactors, my colleagues who are agree that it's well worth reading and can be found here.
One of the hardest things for us as crisis managers is to ensure that accurate information gets out to the public. Subtle nuances, like the difference in types of radiation, sometime get overlooked or are not clearly understood. There is also, of course, a media bias towards the sensational but my experience with my media colleagues has been that most reporters want to get it right -that's how Pulitzers are won. So it really begins with our message and gets back to what I mentioned in my previous blog - the need to go beyond just straight facts and give simple, easily understood information.
However, this problem goes beyond just public information. Prioritizing the wrong problem in response means that resources get diverted instead of going where they are needed most. It's critical in any response to continue to assess changing needs and to focus on what is really needed rather than letting perception drive operations.
Had an interesting morning here in San Francisco. After staying up late following the recent earthquake in Japan, I was awoken early by a text message from a good friend in the neighborhood concerned about calls and texts she was receiving from friends about a tsunami. She lives on the top of a hill located well outside our 20 foot run up zone and I told her I'd be by for breakfast since her home was safer than mine which is only a block outside the run up zone.
A few minutes later, I received a call from another friend in Iowa advising me to start filling my bathtub and pots and pans in case we lost our water supply. After chuckling a bit, I reminded her what I did for a living.
These contacts from concerned friends reminded me once again that we really don't do a good job of public warning. Amanda Ripley points out in her excellent book, The Unthinkable, that our warnings contain fact and actions but don't always stress "why". In this case, the local authorities provided a timely warning with good information and appropriate actions. What they didn't do was couch the warning in a way that allayed concern.
Our tsunami warning include a potential for a 2-3 foot wave. The problem is the average citizen has no idea what a 2-3 foot wave would do. They tend to think in terms of a tsunami that would wash over the entire peninsula, something that is not even geologically possible given the shape of our shoreline. A wave of the size predicted would probably not even have gotten over our seawall. The EOC staff took a reasonable precaution by closing the Great Highway adjacent to the seawall and elected not to evacuate the immediate area which demonstrates they understood the risks. Unfortunately, this information wasn't really shared well with the public and the media.
This should not be taken as criticism of my local colleagues who did everything appropriately according to our accepted practices. Instead, I'm suggesting that we need to rethink the way we issue warnings and the mechanisms we use to distribute those warnings. We need to share our reasoning with the public rather than just telling them what to do. Our studies show that people don't really trust our messages and will seek verification from other sources before acting. Understanding why they should take the actions we recommend could help reduce this lag.
So the next time you need to issue a warning, give some thought to explaining what the potential threat really means. Your warnings will be a lot more effective.
There are several criminal investigations under way in San Francisco regarding the activities of undercover narcotics officers. The officers are alleged to have conducted illegal searches of suspects' residences and falsified police reports to cover up their actions. Unfortunately, at least four incidences of alleged misconduct were caught on closed circuit surveillance cameras. The public defender presented the videos as evidence in court, where it became a public record. He then called a press conference, showed the video and then posted it to the You Tube site maintained by his office.
What makes this so interesting is not the alleged crime but rather the fact that the public defender of a major city is using You Tube for official purposes. There was a time when we would have read about an incident of this type in the papers but would always wonder if the reporter got it right. Now the evidence is readily available at the click of a button from an official source.
This is yet another example of how social media is changing how we do business in government. Transparency in government is generally considered a good thing but as social media continues to evolve, we're going to be confronted by a whole host of privacy and legal issues. But there's no putting the genie back in the bottle - social media is rapidly becoming part of the fabric of our day-to-day lives and, sooner rather than later, we will need to embrace the changes it brings.
In 2008 I was asked by the Golden Gate Regional Center in California to serve as the adviser on a series of preparedness videos for the developmentally disabled community. It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable projects I have had and I'm delighted to learn that this series of videos is now available on YouTube. I have posted the links on my blog site at http://freeresources.luciencanton.com/
The series consists of 8 short videos. Parts 1-5 are designed for the individual and steps you through pre-disaster mitigation and preparedness, immediate actions during the disaster and immediately following, recovery and public health emergencies. Parts 6-8 are intended to provide care givers with the tools to systematically assess their facilities and develop a plan for increasing their preparedness.
While the series was prepared specifically for the DD community, the themes are universal and the concepts can be applied to other populations. I hope you find them useful.