Emergency Management and Considerations for Visiting Populations

Radar loop, Labor Day 1998 Upstate New York.  This storm impacted the New York State Fair.

Radar loop, Labor Day 1998 Upstate New York. This storm impacted the New York State Fair.

The inspiration for this blog was a paper posted to LLIS by Dr. Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University (Australia) and Lincoln University (New Zealand).  The paper is titled The Christchurch Earthquake and the Visitor Sector, which is also available from this link if you don’t have LLIS access.

Dr. Becken highlights the Christchurch earthquake of February 22, 2011, which killed 185 people from more than 20 nations, 80 of which were listed as visiting, rather than residing in, Christchurch.  She states that as a result of this M 7.1 earthquake infrastructure was badly damaged, accommodation capacity was reduced by half, and the number of international visitors dropped by almost 30 percent in the aftermath.  Dr. Becken identifies many of the challenges visitors had, including loss of travel documentation and other important items, and the value of the tourism industry in the area to assist response efforts (such as providing lodging for displaced citizens as well as responders from out of the area).

This paper brings to mind the vast amounts of visitors and transient populations that are found in many communities across the nation.  When visiting an attraction such as an amusement park, where tens of thousands of people congregate on any given summer day, take a look around.  Many of the amusement parks I know of are in fairly rural areas.  These towns are likely to have small volunteer fire departments and may not even have their own police services, instead relying on a county Sheriff’s Department or State Police.  How about a small city that has popular attractions at certain times of the year, such as horse tracks or other sporting events?  These events will also draw tens of thousands of people from near and far, staying in hotels, motels, and campgrounds.  Sure, these small cities might have a 24-hour staffed fire department, and probably even a small police force.  But how prepared are these types of areas for an incident that can cause mass casualties and fatalities?

Incidents such as this underscore the need for our preparedness to be through and needs-based.  As part of our Threat and Hazard Identification and Assessment (THIRA), which is the latest evolution of the traditional hazard analysis (see CPG-201), we must be sure to recognize visitors and transient populations and the events that bring them to our areas.  We should consider tourist attractions, field days, concerts and performances, large conventions, sporting events, and even college populations.  The potential impacts, in the event of a disaster, are certainly greater with these populations given that they are likely to be unfamiliar with the area, don’t reside locally and probably have no local contacts, and aren’t familiar with the threats.  Given the nature of the event they are attending, they may very well be consuming alcohol, as well.  All this makes for a rather fragile and dependent population in the event of disaster.

Planning on the macro (community) level should consider the specifics mentioned above.  With this information you can estimate the resources needed for certain scenarios (this is part of your THIRA), which will lead you determine gaps which you then plan to address.  Take some time to examine the demographics of the visiting populations.  These demographics will help determine their level of need in the event of a disaster and some areas of support you may need to provide.  Your local chamber of commerce and/or tourism authority can be an important planning partner for this information and other purposes.  Certainly consider the nature of the events and the age range of the attendees.  Are there language or cultural issues that should be prepared for?  Much of this specific information can be obtained event by event, looking at the micro (event-specific) level of planning for these events.  In New York State, a mass gathering permit is supposed to be issued for any event estimating attendance over a certain number.  The primary purpose of these permits is to ensure that officials are aware of the event and that potable water and sanitation is appropriately available, as well as other caveats.  Most states have a similar type of permitting requirement.  Become familiar with it and use it to your advantage.

In any of these events, how will you handle alert and notification in the event of a disaster?  You may have sirens in place, but would a visitor know what it means?  Given that such a high percentage of people have cell phones, use of area blast messaging may be an appropriate consideration.

A lesson learned from airline crashes can and should be brought into your planning: family assistance centers.  Family assistance centers were brought about in the aftermath of the crash of TWA Flight 800, realizing the importance of providing support and information to the families and loved ones of victims.  This concept has been applied as a standard to other mass fatality incidents since then and has proven to be beneficial to all parties.

Be sure to conduct preparedness exercises on these plans, and include members of your local hospitality and tourism industry as they will certainly be involved in some aspect of the greater response should an incident occur.

Sometimes local communities view visiting populations as a hassle, particularly when they don’t have the care for the host community that the locals do.  These populations are usually important to the economy of the local area and, depending in the event, will be back year after year.  No matter what your take is on that argument, you must consider the safety of any visitors or tourists as if they were your own citizens.  Be prepared through regular planning, training, and exercising activities and be sure to include your local chamber of commerce, tourism and hospitality industry as they are not only stakeholders, but they have a great deal of support and information to provide.  Most importantly, remember that all good preparedness efforts begin with a solid needs assessment.  Conduct a THIRA for your community, you might be surprised with what you discover!

What experiences do you have with planning for visiting populations?

Kudos to Cleveland

As I was typing away at the State Preparedness Report for a client late into the night last night, I would check new blog posts while the FEMA web tool would save and load new pages (the PREPCAST portal was gruelingly slow as the deadline for every state is December 31st).  Every couple of hours, a new post would go up in the WordPress Emergency Preparedness category from the Cleveland, Ohio Public Safety Department as they updated readers on the weather, road conditions, snow removal, parking, and safety matters.  Essentially, they would provide a mini situation report for the public and include whatever information residents needed to know.

This is certainly a best practice and excellent utilization of a blog to provide up to date information.  Great job Cleveland!

How does your jurisdiction disseminate emergency information?

Public Warning and The Science Behind EM

Rescuers at the L’AQUILA, Italy earthquake.

I was completely shocked to read this article at NBC News about six scientists and a government official in Italy being convicted of manslaughter and causing criminally negligent injury for their failure to predict an earthquake in 2009.  The article doesn’t give a lot of background, including what their statements or warnings may or may not have been.  It does mention that there were several smaller quakes in the months preceding a devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed over 300 people.  It goes on to elude that the scientists (seismologists, presumably) perhaps didn’t give these smaller quakes much consideration as possible precursors to a larger earthquake.

I’m not a geologist, nor do I play one on TV, but we all know that we can’t predict earthquakes with any measure of reliability.  Here in the northeast there are plenty of small quakes, which are generally no cause for alarm.  Italy, however, is earthquake prone.  One would think that people would have in their minds that the possibility of a sizeable earthquake is always present, especially after a series of smaller earthquakes.  Unless these scientists really downplayed that possibility (which would be ludicrous in that region of the world), I just don’t see how they can be held responsible.  Some disasters we can predict, others – such as earthquakes, we just can’t.  This is a dangerous precedent that I truly hope doesn’t catch on.  There are scientists in a variety of fields that are strong partners with emergency management.  While we know that the sciences (or the human interpretation of them) are often times imperfect, we go with the best information available to drive the planning and decisions we make.  Admittedly, it’s a gamble to a degree – a darn dangerous gamble – but I challenge anyone to find a better way.  If we cry wolf every time the possibility of something occurs, the population will become complacent and ignore our warnings.  We must strive for better science, achieve better balance, and maintain common sense.

Telephonic Alert Systems Not the Only Solution

Recently, Emergency Management Magazine posted an article on failures of telephonic alert notifications (http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/Do-Alert-Notifications-Fail-Expectations.html).  The article certainly exposes some of the limitations of these systems as well as the reasons why these limitations exist.  One significant reason is that these systems typically require cell phone users to subscribe (yep… one more thing we need to ask the public to do in an effort for them to be responsible for their own well-being).  Those of you reading this who are in Emergency Management know that it’s very difficult to motivate the general public to do these types of things.  Yes, subscription can be circumvented by forced cell bursts, whereas public safety pushes messages out to all cell users within the range of a given tower(s).  This, though, by FCC regulation, is only to be done in the event of extreme emergency.

So what do we do?  First, we need to continue marketing these alerting programs.  The Feds have put one together they are hoping to implement nationally, many states have them, some cities have them, college campuses have them, even some businesses have them.  They have a huge value – particularly the ones that are customizable by the end-user and multi-modal (voice, text, e-mail, fax, etc.).  Just an hour and a half ago I received an alert by text and e-mail about a magnitude 2.5 earthquake in Canada on the Quebec-Ontario border.  Likewise, I receive them about local road closures and severe weather.  I market our local alert system as much as possible – I’ve even obtained hundreds of flyers from the state’s emergency management agency on the program so I can distribute them when I have speaking engagements and attend community events.  The technology is wonderful and it will continue evolving – both from the programming side that initiates the alert as well as the ability of our infrastructure to handle mass notifications.

The article, however, seems to not mention the integration of other modes of communication to the public.  This is absolutely vital!  You can never rely on only one mode.  Certainly EAS, pushed through radio and TV, is extremely valuable and effective.  But we also need to consider using sirens and even personnel driving through neighborhoods in vehicles providing information by way of loud-speaker.  There is always a chance that you won’t reach someone, but you have to cover as many modes as practical given the importance of the information that must get out.