When is a Snow Emergency like a Public Health Emergency?

Snow events, for local government agencies, are pretty unique. They are emergencies, no doubt, but kind of slow-moving emergencies. There’s generally a lead-in time with advanced warning (when the grocery stores get cleaned out), then a slowly deteriorating situation that stresses response capacity and only after the event is over do you how bad it really was.

Sounds a bit like a pandemic to me.

Except for places that are the first hit (Mexico, San Diego, and Texas in H1N1, China in SARS), there’s at least some warning in a disease event. And response capacity stressed? Oh yeah, definitely; beds, nurses, medications, vaccines, respirators, you name it there was a shortage of it. And only after it’s over do we really have a good view of how bad it was, and how big of a bullet we (hopefully) dodged.

The public information needs are also similar. There are new rules put into effect (snow emergency route parking restrictions and isolation or school closings), recommendations on how best to deal with the situation (wear lots of layers or lift with knees while shoveling and covering your cough), and a need for situation updates (Mayor Booker is a great new example and CDCs FluView is another).

Okay, for all of you naysayers, it’s not perfect, but there are lessons to be learned, right?

Which leads to my point. Pam Broviak, writing for the Government in the Lab website, details the efforts of a City Manager for the City of Elgin, IL during the recent blizzard that ate the Midwest to communicate with the public.

Ms.Broviak identified eight things we all can learn about communicating during slow-moving emergencies (and most of them have to do with utilizing social media):

  1. Publish the local weather alert and let people know where to get more information. This information should be issued in a press release, posted on the city’s website, and sent out through the city’s social media accounts, automated call services, and e-mail blasts.
  2. As more information is received, follow up through the same channels letting people know about special rules in effect and how services will be impacted.
  3. Once the storm hits, post information on social media channels about the snow and ice control operations and give people an idea about how often updates will be provided.
  4. Continue regular updates throughout the storm, and include information about equipment, schedules, staffing, status of services such as power, traffic conditions and road closures, weather conditions, emergency service response, and other relevant issues.
  5. Post snow plow location data if available.
  6. Inform citizens if operations are suspended and let them know when they resume.
  7. Inform citizens of problems and property damage.
  8. Let residents know as operations near completion. Leave them with contact information and one last update on the status of operations.

While these are very much associated with snow removal and other infrastructure-y things, I think they’re absolutely necessary in public health and other slow-moving emergencies. Push out information early and often, through a variety of channels, provide situation updates including information on where things are happening, be the first to note when things aren’t going as well as planned, and finally, let people know where they can learn more.

I think of these tips as core goals of an emergency communication effort. That they’re tied to social media here is just an illustration of one tool in the toolbox.