information appearing on its Web site, www.uscgstormwatch.com.

Uses of PIER varied considerably. At the University of Houston, for instance, it was all about reaching out to students, said Marc Mullen, senior vice president of PIER Systems. As the storm rolled in, campus security used PIER to communicate news of building closures and let people know when it was safe to return.

PIER allowed a multimedia approach to communications. "When they would post a message to the Web site, they could simultaneously push it out to students' cell phones," Mullen said.

The PIER site also helped communicators track and respond to concerns among students and parents. "They sent out the notice about campus reopenings, and they immediately started getting questions from students: 'How can you expect me to be on campus when I can't get gas for my car?' At the same time, they were getting questions from parents asking, 'Is it safe for my son or daughter to return to campus?'" he said.

Hundreds of queries passed through the site, where a small team of administrators handled them.

With approximately 26,000 employees, Marathon Oil used its employee Web site - Marathoncares.com - as the channel for its PIER communication. In addition to releasing current information, the system allowed workers to update their contact information in real time, in case they became displaced by the storm. By Sept. 15, the site had about 370,000 hits, Mullen said.

For the Eighth Coast Guard District, timely updates were at a premium. Public affairs officials relied heavily on PIER's template structure. Rather than create news pages from scratch, users typically posted news of waterway closures and other critical information into preformatted spaces, Mullen said.

If automated tools like PIER can make communications more efficient and coordinated in times of crises, there are not only practical benefits but also intangible advances for the emergency response community regarding long-term public support. "A good response poorly communicated is not seen as a good response," Mullen said. Better communications mean greater understanding for the role of emergency services and the value they provide.

 

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer