Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Communication, Communication, Communication

Disaster communication is in the news.

The CDC has released an online guide for disaster communications in the early hours after a major incident involving biological or chemical agents, radiation, or suicide bombings:

The guide provides message templates for local leaders to communicate with the public:

The messages were written to be used by federal public health officials and to be adapted for the use of state and local public health officials during a terrorist attack or suspected attack. Use these messages as follows:

  • To communicate with the public during a terrorist attack or a suspected attack
  • To adapt for a specific event (These messages were written for fictitious situations, so assumptions were made about an event.)
  • To provide information during the first hours of an event
  • To save precious moments during the initial response time and to buy the time necessary for public health leaders to develop more specific messages

My only complaint about the guide is that it isn't organized in a very user-friendly fashion. You have to click around a bit to find what you're looking for.

In other news, Government Technology reported on Washington D.C. mayor Anthony Williams' efforts to increase subscriptions for the city's text-message alert system, which would send them information and updates in the event of an emergency. (San Francisco recently created a similar system.)
In order to make the process easier, individuals can now sign up by simply texting 32362 (D-C-E-M-A) from any cellular device.

"This new rapid enrollment feature means people who want to register for the system don't need access to the Internet or e-mail to sign up for alerts," said Williams. "Signing up for emergency alerts is as easy as using a cell phone -- and it can really pay off when there is any kind of emergency in your neighborhood."

DC Text Alert allows citizens to receive emergency messages about an event on any text-capable device -- cell phone, computer -mail, pagers, and PDAs. ... Currently, 23,000 individuals have registered for the system, which was inaugurated in June 2004.
On another subject, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) released its biennial report (available for purchase only) . In a press release, NEMA summarized some of the survey's main findings:
Unfortunately, these growing [state] responsibilities that are mandated by the federal government are not supported by adequate funding.

There are positive findings as well. An overwhelming majority of states – 46 – are making use of established standards to assess capabilities and address shortfalls in their state emergency management programs. ... Standards would result in a more comprehensive emergency management program at the local level, which would mean greater capability when a disaster occurs.

The Biennial Report shows that the mutual aid system in the U.S. continues to strengthen. The Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), a national mutual aid agreement that allows support across state lines when a disaster occurs, played a key role in the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita response. By spring 2006, the compact had deployed nearly 66,000 people from 48 states, at a cost of more than $830 million.

Thirty-five states now have established similar structures within their own borders. These intrastate agreements allow jurisdictions to help one another while having provisions in place to address reimbursement, liability and workers compensation issues. Thirty-six states also have a regional mutual aid mechanism in place. This bodes well for faster, stronger and more efficient disaster response and recovery.
Government Computer News reported that the full NEMA survey estimated that the full cost of statewide systems for communication interoperability will be about $7 billion:

The National Governor's Association also tackled the issue of interoperability, in its recent issue brief: "Strategies for States to Achieve Public Safety Wireless Interoperability." The short report is worth reading, if only for the best practices that it found among the states for promoting interoperable communications (an example of the federal system at work). But generally, the NGA found that there is a lot of important work to do:
The lack of interoperable communications continues to be a serious, pressing public safety problem that severely undermines the ability of first responders to operate effectively during an mergency situation.

Five key issues underlie the current status of interoperability among public safety agencies in this country:
  • incompatible and aging communications equipment;
  • limited and fragmented funding;
  • limited and fragmented planning;
  • a lack of coordination and cooperation; and
  • inadequate and fragmented radio spectrum.
But here's one good thing: The NGA emphasizes that local agencies should be closely involved in any state effort to promote interoperability:
Providing local representation on the governance body and in interoperability planning is a critical. The state governance board that oversees the development of public safety wireless communications should include local public safety agency requirements for emergency communications. Local officials should be included in planning and decision making early.
Generally, anything that improves communication, either among first responders or between first responders and the public, can only be a good thing. Communication problems were significant in the aftermath of Katrina and 9/11. It's a problem that has lingered too long.

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