By now you've probably heard that yesterday's test of the national Emergency Alert System did not go as well as planned. This, of course, is not a bad thing. The system has never been tested and identifying problems can only help to improve it.
The larger question, though, is do we still need it? The system itself is a Cold War artifact - developed to allow the President to address the nation in the event of nuclear war. We have made some use of parts of the system at the local level for such things as weather warnings and AMBER alerts. But I found our system in San Francisco to be cumbersome and hard to use and made much more use of other tools such as California's Emergency Digital Information Service.
We have an amazing array of new systems and technologies that allow for almost immediate communication. We're making it easier and easier to move information across systems through through innovations such as the Common Alerting Protocol (CAP).
The nature of the threat has changed as well. Instead of a worldwide nuclear war, we now deal with asymmetrical warfare. Evening catastrophic natural disasters don't seem to warrant use of the system. During Hurricane Katrina, EAS was not used by local governments, although the NOAA weather radio system which is used in conjunction with EAS was used to provide weather reports.
I applaud my colleagues at FEMA for having the courage to test the EAS system, knowing that it would most likely have difficulties. I think this puts us in an excellent position to determine whether it is cost effective to fix the system or to pursue other options.
"Social media is for parties. We ain't giving no parties." This quote is attributed to a Washington DC Fire Department spokesman in a response over the DC fire twitter feed. It seems that one spokesman (who was later transferred to another job) was tweeting real-time information that the public could actually use. His boss preferred the usual pablum that most public agencies put out.
The problem for me here is not the internal workings of the DC fire department. I have no knowledge of the issues involved or the appropriateness of the tweets, so I do not feel I can comment on a personnel action. What does concern me is that a spokesman for a major department is completely dismissing social media as means of communicating with the public.
There are certainly concerns about providing real time information. Part of it is culturally based: emergency responders don't like to share information with outsiders. Part of it is the technical difficulty - computer aided dispatch systems are usually required to be isolated from the Internet because of security concerns, making it impossible to add a "tweet this" option and requiring a separate step when a dispatcher is dealing with an incident.
However, ultimately we're going to have to deal with these issues. The public demand for information is already out there and a tweet that says, "fire at Broadway and Main. Avoid the area" seems a reasonable expectation.
Let me give you a different quote from Craig Fugate, Director of FEMA, from his testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications:
"Social media is an important part of the Whole Community approach because it helps facilitate the vital two-way communication between emergency management agencies and the public, and it allows us to quickly and specifically share information with state, local, territorial, and tribal governments as well as the public."
So what's your attitude towards social media?
Several times a month I'll receive an email from some well-meaning friend that provides a warning about some new crime technique, virus or government/corporate conspiracy. I'm fairly good at spotting that they're spam and usually can find a link on one of the debunker sites that I can send back to my friend. Some of these rumors have been making the rounds for years and are still going strong.
Couple this longevity with the speed of social media and you have a potent combination with the power to spread disinformation almost instaneously. When US soldiers started vacinating cows in Iraq in 2005, rumors that the US was poisoning livestock to starve the Iraqis garnered substantial support for the insurgents. Other rumors spread via social media have led to riots and the death of innocent bystanders. In response, the US Navy has just awarded a $1.6 million contract to develop a system track and defuse rumors.
The project seeks to develop an app that can be used to report rumors via smartphone. This data will then be analyzed and, if necessary, counter-narratives will be developed. The project team hopes the system will lead to a website that can by accessed by anyone to check any rumor anywhere.
Until that day, though, it's a good idea to monitor your web presence and make sure you're being responsive to complaints and rumors. In this day of instanteous communications, you've only got a short time to realize you have a problem and respond.
By now you've probably heard that the CDC has been trying to generate interest in preparedness through a rather light-hearted campaign encouraging people to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. The idea of using zombie infestation as a metaphor for pandemic infection has been around for a while - I blogged about it back in August and October of 2009. I thought the it was a minor trend that would soon run its course. Boy, was I wrong.
Zombie infestation is stronger than ever. The CDC campaign exceeded the expectations of its planners (who deserve kudos, by the way, for having the courage to try something so outlandish in such a conservative industry). The CDC now has a range of zombie products (I'm on the waiting list for my T-shirt) and the trend is being picked up across the country. My colleagues in Ohio named October "Zombie Preparedness Month" and held a major hazardous materials drill yesterday (Halloween, of course!) with a zombie theme.
Are we being just a bit silly here? There's always a risk that campaigns like this can backfire and reduce our credibility. After all, FEMA is still taking heat for a 1994 publication that included a chapter on dealing with alien landings. But let's face it - our traditional methods of encouraging preparedness don't work all that well. Anything that gets people's attention and gets the message of preparedness across is, in my book, a good thing. Besides, there are a lot of people really having fun with this and that's also a good thing.
Can't wait for the CDC to restock so I can get my T-shirt!