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The Makings of Disaster Communicate, Collaborate, Educate: Part I

By Stacey Mann



The word disaster often brings to mind the chaos and conflict that surrounds an event. Vivid images of the April 27, 2011 tornado, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11 quickly flash through our minds. We can all define the makings of disaster. We can identify the problems that exist at all levels of government. We can pinpoint many of the lessons that the public should be taught to mitigate, prepare, respond, and recover. We can identify the resources that are constantly lacking, such as staff, time, money, and personnel, all of which could be useful in mitigation and preparedness efforts. However, rarely do we identify the things we are doing right.

Brock Long, vice-president of Hagerty Consulting and former director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, recently spoke to a group of doctoral students and guests in the Department of Emergency Management at Jacksonville State University. As one of today’s brightest and most insightful minds in the field of emergency management, Long, along with members of the audience, identified many aspects of emergency management that need improvement. However, the segment of the discussion that had the most impact on the students, practitioners, and scholars that filled the room was the portion that focused on what the successes of emergency management. As the achievements of emergency management professionals, government officials, voluntary organizations, and citizens were shared, it became clear that the mistakes often cause the successes to be overlooked.

While many were mentioned, three particular areas – communication, collaboration, and education – seemed to tie much of the discussion together. I’ll cover the importance of these three areas in the next few articles. Today, I’ll cover communication.



Communication is key to any relationship, whether professional, personal, or organizational. When communication breaks down, problems become not only apparent, but also highlighted. Hurricane Katrina will forever be categorized as the epitome of communication failures and breakdowns that were basic ingredients in the makings of a disaster.

However, as problems have surfaced, so have discussions of potential solutions. For instance, Hurricane Katrina revealed that vulnerable populations do exist and that one of the most overlooked groups within that population is the elderly. Some organizations, agencies, and governments have communication efforts that focus strictly on this population and their needs during times of crisis. Specifically, the State of Florida Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA) publishes the Disaster Preparedness Guide for Elders, which covers topics such as insurance policies, special needs registry, medication refills, and planning for pets.



Florida has the largest population of elderly residents, according to the DOAE website, communication with these individuals is pertinent. Ashley Marshall, director of communication for DOEA, explained that the Guide is published in May and June each year, in place of the regular issues of the Department’s newspaper, Elder Update.

“We want to ensure content in this paper is informative to Florida elders and is relevant for the issues affecting them and their families during an emergency event,” said Marshall in a recent email. “We print 220,000 copies of this issue (in total) in English and Spanish. We have worked hard the last two years to really step it up a notch on this important issue, ensuring that we have the most critical information an elder would need for disaster preparedness.”

Many elderly individuals do not use newer technologies, DOAE relies heavily on the traditional forms of communication, such as print media, and works with organizations like the Red Cross and the 11 Area Agencies on Aging to ensure that the Guide reaches as many elders as possible. In addition to understanding the appropriate media, printing the newspaper in both English and Spanish allows the message to reach more of Florida’s at-risk populations.

For the general public, methods of receiving information about disaster preparedness and warnings are quite diverse. In fact, the initial results of a recent survey of emergency managers nationwide conducted by the author indicate that emergency management agencies nationwide distribute information via email, radio, local newspapers, social media, television, websites, text messaging, among others. The top three methods described by emergency managers to be the most effective for distributing preparedness information were their agency’s website, the local newspaper, and television.  In addition, several added that face-to-face events, neighborhood association meetings and outreach programs also were effective methods in their preparedness efforts.

When asked which method they found to be most effective for reaching citizens for actual emergencies, emergency managers ranked



radio first, followed by Reverse 911 and television, which tied for second. Several emergency managers also said that their agencies use notification systems such as Nixle, which sends notifications to users via text message, email or web page, and Blackboard Connect, which sends notifications to published business and residential numbers as well as registered cell phone numbers.

Interestingly, over 40 percent of survey respondents reported using social media such as Twitter or Facebook as well as apps for cell phones or tablets for warning citizens during actual emergencies. While social media may present challenges in response, such as inaccurate or misinformation, emergency management professionals at all levels are beginning to see the benefits. In fact, in a 2011 report on the use of social media in federal agencies, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) “identified several distinct ways that 23 of 24 major agencies are using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. These include re-posting information available on official agency Web sites, posting information not otherwise available on agency Web sites, soliciting comments from the public, responding to comments on posted content, and providing links to non-government sites.” However, GAO also warned that “these services may also pose risks to the adequate protection of both personal and government information.”

Although only a few examples have been offered here, the point to note is that while mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned, as a whole, the emergency management community has made great strides in their communication efforts. In addition, government at all levels is showing positive signs of at least attempting to communicate not only with its citizens, but also across departments, agencies and sectors. And, while citizens and public officials alike will admit more work is needed, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that even if not perfect, understanding the importance of communication is certainly something emergency management professionals are doing right.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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