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Lessons Learned for Facing the Public in Disaster

Harris County, Texas' Francisco Sanchez learned from Hurricane Katrina to give the public what it wants.

Francisco Sanchez is the liaison to the director of the Harris County, Texas, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (OHSEM), Judge Ed Emmett. The office is responsible for disaster preparedness and response in the region. Sanchez also acts as the public information officer for OHSEM. In this edited Q&A with Emergency Management, Sanchez addresses lessons learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Question: What are the most critical elements of your job?
Answer: Keeping our audiences informed not only on what we’re doing in response to incidents, but what we’re doing day in and day out to secure Harris County and the region.

We have three sets of audiences. First is our elected officials and decision-makers — those folks we’re responsible to and who have to make the critical decisions during an incident like whether we evacuate or issue a disaster declaration. They need to know the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario and their roles and responsibilities as elected officials and decision-makers.

Then we have our partners and stakeholders. They need to know what we’re actually doing now, what plans we are about to activate and what steps we are supposed to take so we have a common operating picture in this region. This allows them to adjust their plans accordingly and not find out on the news what we’re doing and what threat we’re facing.

The third audience is the media and our public. They want to know the just-in-time information, what’s happening, what they need to do about it and how they stay safe.

How have those demands changed since hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
Communication is the single most important factor in determining where our response to an emergency is going to be graded in that very broad spectrum between failure and success. To be honest, as emergency managers and public safety officials, the grade we give ourselves in how we communicated with one another isn’t going to matter as much as the grade we get in the glaring light of public scrutiny.

I have not seen any sort of after-action report where communications has not been an issue. So communications is always going to be one of the things we need to focus on and do better. Certainly Katrina and Rita raised the bar in terms of the public’s expectations and the challenges, but also technology has changed — how people get information.

No longer is the traditional broadcast media the primary source of where people get information. They get it on their phones, through apps, on computers, and there’s a growing expectation that they have for us, in getting information in a timely matter.

Katrina and Rita raised the bar, and since then we have additional challenges in how we do that effectively and efficiently. We have a growing list of challenges, but also opportunities in how we meet the public information need.

What are the implications of social media where information is being blasted in real time, and how do you manage that?

We have to understand that social media is a two-way form of communication. And folks like FEMA Administrator [Craig] Fugate saying we have one-person shops in this country doing social media, so there’s no excuse for not doing it. But we have to understand that it is just one channel for how we get emergency information out.

The challenge for us is we have this growing list of channels — EAS [the Emergency Alert System] has developed new capabilities; the Wireless Emergency Alerts are a new avenue to get very specific information to some very specific groups of people about a threat; social media and new digital technologies are requiring unique sets of expertise and capabilities for public safety officials. So it’s an area where we have to, quite frankly, do a better job.

Are emergency managers being effective in using social media?
I think it’s time for a national dialog about how we meet the growing expectations of emergency public information with the capabilities that we have. We have to do a couple of things. One, we must have a baseline of capabilities and say here is the minimum that we have to be doing to meet the growing expectations. Two, we have to standardize our approach and have some sort of agreement on the approaches we need to take and how we need to take them. And we have to define the framework of what we’re doing. It’s no longer simply standing in front of a camera or doing a telephone interview with print media and expecting that that will solve the problem.

Those are the things we need to have a national dialog on, especially as we have more of these capabilities that are being driven by our federal partners like Wireless Emergency Alerts, EAS and the new technologies in social media. I think that we do it in three ways, the first being through automation. As emergency managers, we probably don’t own the bulk of the information we are responsible for pushing out. People come to us about weather or safety tips on how to respond to an incident and about how we’re coordinating a response — how we automate aggregating the information from all partners will be essential.

Second, we need integration. Once we have all that information, we’re boiling it down to a single message and want to speak with one voice, but we have all these channels to get it across. We have 140 characters on Twitter, we have probably a couple of sentences on Facebook, a couple of seconds on broadcast and one screenshot to get it out on the Web. So how do we get the message integrated on all those channels in a way that meets the unique requirements of each?

The third way of meeting the requirement is through social science. We have a solid body of evidence from social science that tells us how the public reacts to certain messages. What do we need to include in that message, and how many times do we have to repeat it?

I’ve been pushing, not only with our federal partners, to have a national dialog on how we use integration, automation and social science to do our jobs and add some uniformity across the country so we’re building that capability.

What were your biggest takeaways from Katrina and Rita?
Katrina was the first time I managed a joint information center. Up to that time, that was probably the largest joint information center we’d ever established along the Gulf Coast. A lot of lessons came out of there, and the biggest is we need to communicate to the public not just what they need to know, but what they want to know. By that I mean we had an excellent working relationship with the media here in Houston and Harris County, but all of a sudden we had a satellite city outside of the Astrodome.  

It was a unique challenge to face the media that based on what they were experiencing in New Orleans, came in with an adversarial attitude, and really they were advocating for the public because the public was demanding to know who was doing something right.

We had to quickly adapt and say, “We are doing a good job.” But we had to prove to the media and public that we were doing something at the Astrodome to respond and help our neighbors. So we opened up the doors to the Astrodome and let the media come in and talk to the evacuees. The world got to see that someone was doing it right and evacuees were getting the help they needed. So the biggest takeaway was it’s not enough to say, “Here’s what you need to know.” Let’s understand what the public wants to hear and see — and they want to hear and see that someone is taking it seriously, that we’re doing the best we can with the resources we have.

The second takeaway was that we needed an advocate for the join information center concept. We operated a 24/7 joint operation center that probably never had fewer than 20 people staffing a shift.

Since then we have gone from having to do that on the fly to having one of the most robust capabilities of doing regional emergency public information. Eight years later, we now have the Regional Joint Information Center. We have 54 cities, 125 law enforcement agencies, 54 fire departments and dozens of private-sector partners.

We now have a Regional Joint Information Center website where the public goes for trusted information. Any time of day, our partners can post a message to that site, and it’s become a one-stop shop where people can get information they would expect directly from the source. If they want to know about rainfall data and weather, they get the [National Weather Service] feed; they get electric utility information showing where the power is out; and a real-time traffic map.