What If You Have an Earthquake, But Don’t Tell Anyone?

A couple of people sent me this article yesterday. Looking at the June 23 earthquake outside of Ottawa near Gatineau, Quebec, the article details a series of public information failures that essentially silenced the local government after a magnitude 5.0 earthquake shook the area.

Can you imagine going dark after an earthquake? If cities and states don’t learn these lessons, they may very well be risking just that.

First, the blow-by-blow.

[W]hen the magnitude-5.0 earthquake actually happened, those best laid plans fell apart.

The Earthquakes Canada website crashed within minutes. So did phone lines to the government seismologists. The Government Operations Centre, a federal nerve center for disasters, was reduced to regurgitating news lifted from media websites.

Natural Resources Canada media staff saw their buildings evacuated — a sensible step, but one that slowed their ability to answer questions.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

[T]he chain of command snarled. Media staffers were forbidden to answer questions. When they setup a conference call for media hours later, it had to be approved by the Privy Council Office, effectively stalling the flow of information into the evening.

About 2,500 pages of emails from the 24 hours after the quake show that experts, trying to get the message out, were hamstrung by dead technology and the demands of senior management.

About three hours after the earthquake, the government put out a notification, alerting the mediate an upcoming conference call — a tangled approval process that included eight steps.

Next, the evaluation. 

National Resources officials say conditions have changed drastically since the earthquake.

They issued a written statement saying: “Newer and faster software and hardware have been installed and tested, resulting in increased capacity of the web infrastructure and ensuring the capability of handling web traffic associated with large-scale natural hazards. The new system was tested during the July 23, 2010, 4.1-magnitude earthquake between Quebec City and Trois-Rivieres. The website handled over a million hits per hour and remained fully functional.”

So, first of all, congrats on the new web capacity. Welcome to the 21st century! Do you notice anything missing from the National Resources officials explanation of what’s been fixed?

Oh yeah, the approval process!

According to this story, the officials have invested in a technological solution. And pronounced the problem fixed. But even with a Google-sized server farm, a NORAD-type reinforced operations center, and a fail-proof phone system, I argue that National Resources Canada would still have problems with disaster messaging.

Eight steps to set up a media call! Three hours! Forget be first, be credible, be right; it’s now say something before the weekend!

This is what I really wanted to talk about, because it’s a problem that’s pervasive in governments everywhere — the need to control information. That said, it’s a rational problem. From day to day, those in charge need to know and have say-so over what’s being said (they do need to get re-elected, y’know).

In a crisis, however, the rules change, and the primary communication concern is disseminating information, not message control. Like the article says, what if there was a tsunami headed for the coast when delays are not measured in minutes, but in lives lost.

I’ve always said that when planning for emergencies, special approval processes need to be developed — and trained to. These approval processes should do a number of things, among them: shorten the approval process for messages (say, to three: executive, PIO, and subject matter expert), shorten the approval process for messaging tools (to one: the PIO), and allow for the approval of messages that trained spokespeople have the freedom to then deliver to the media and public.

The difficult part of this is making senior staff realize that their first instinct (something bad has happened, I might get blamed, I need to control the messaging) is wrong. And then get them to agree to give up control of that message precisely when all of the world’s cameras are pointed directly at them.

How do you solve this sticking point? That’s easy! Involve senior staff in emergency planning — early and often. They need to know why these plans have been developed, why they’ve been given the role that they are being given, what’s being asked of them, and most importantly, what they can and cannot do during a crisis.

I have a feeling that too many responses are hamstrung by a disconnect between the primary planners and responders and the senior staff. I know they’re busy, but learning this stuff beforehand could mean the difference between a successful tenure in their position and shame.