28 September 2010

The politicisation of public emergencies

CBC commentator Bob Wakeham [CBC Radio audio file observed Monday morning that:
Also last week the emergency measures organization seemed to keep a low profile.  perhaps its employees were doing what they were supposed to be doing, but some of my journalistic friends working this hurricane story told me EMO seemed more than willing to hand over visual and public responsibility to cabinet ministers, to talking heads all of whom one would think know little or nothing about these matters, certainly a lot less than officials with a specific mandate to deal with, as the name implies, emergencies.
Right after saying that, Wakeham noted that there did not seem last week to be a sense of immediacy to the emergency response.

These two elements are connected.

And they tie as well to an observation made later Monday morning by the host of the morning talk show in the province.  Randy Simms wondered if the province’s fire and emergency management agency had a communications plan and any people responsible for carrying it out. Simms likened the situation to a disaster in the United States or the cougar crash.  He wondered where were the daily  - or even more frequent - technical briefings that featured, front and centre, the people actually delivering the emergency service, telling the rest of us what they were doing.

What Simms is talking about is what one expect in any other part of North America. Effective public communications are an integral part of recovery operations. Priority should go to basic information – where to find shelter, contact numbers to report problems, etc. – so that people who need help can get it.

This is a basic communications principle:  give people the information they need.

Regular operational briefings allows the emergency managers to make sure that accurate information on the entire emergency gets to the public using news media.  A typical briefing would include maps showing local situations and the type of problems being dealt with.  People get information.  They can track progress.  As events develop they can gain confidence that things are getting better. They can also better assess their own situation and make sensible decisions about their own situation;  they may need to just hang tough and weather the discomfort.  Or they can seek help.  Either way, information helps people make the right decision and have confidence.

In the modern age, officials should be using websites, Twitter, and Facebook to help push out detailed information. These can also be ways of feeding information into the emergency management room. 

News media bring pictures.  E-mails and twitter posts can give clues to where problems and that will supplement the information coming to the operations centre from health, fire, emergency, roads and other officials who should be present in the command centre.

The competence of the recovery - readily displayed to the public - instills public confidence.

Now compare that to the provincial government’s efforts during this emergency.

The scope of the emergency was apparent by the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday, the day of the storm.  The Premier, emergency services minister Tom Hedderson, health minister Jerome Kennedy and MHA Paul Davis held a news conference at 4:00 PM. Kennedy and Hedderson talked about dealing with breaks in the roads around the region.

As the Telegram reported:
[Williams] said he would also personally deal with those affected.
“With regard to any claims – obviously that’s not the priority right now, but certainly it will be” he said. "Tomorrow we will be on the ground in the region in as many communities as we can – myself and ministers and members – to see what the needs are.”
Even though the scope of the emergency was pretty obvious on Tuesday, the fire and emergency management agency did not issue any news release on Wednesday, nor was [any information available on]  its website.

The first news release with an emergency services contact on it – at 10:55 AM [Wednesday] – was about the helicopter tours.  Line departments issued notices about building and road closures.

But no one from emergency services distributed information via news media on a shelter available in Clarenville for travelers stranded by the storm.  Many wound up sleeping in their cars at a local motel, a tale carried by local news media for several days after the storm.  Some, like a group of truckers parked at a shopping mall to ride out the storm, only found out about the shelter by happenstance.

At no point did government officials issue advisories on measures to take in areas where local drinking water supplies had been damaged, were suspect, or cut off entirely. The issue of drinking water seemed to come up in one media briefing only as a hope that the military would not have to supply that, even though they came with water purification facilities on three ships and in the engineer detachment from Gagetown.

The second media release by emergency services – at 4:45 PM [Wednesday] -  discussed how to file claims for financial assistance.  It would be two days after the storm before the agency released public contact information and almost a week later before there was a single toll-free number for the public to call. Even then, the website at first contained little more than a chronological listing of news releases.

The next day  - September 23 - line departments issued updates about road closures and openings.  The emergency management agency issued no releases nor did it conduct any media briefings.

The first media briefing came on Friday, September 24, a full three days after the storm.  Scheduled for 3:00 PM, it actually took place an hour later.  As noted in another post, the public already knew about the federal aid  but the aid described by the minister were radically different. The briefing contained little in the way of concrete information about the scope of the disaster, what the problems were, and what was being done to deal with them. The full picture of the disaster only became apparent on Thursday and Friday as news media from St. John’s fanned out to see for themselves what was going on.

In between all this, though, Hedderson and an assortment of cabinet ministers and backbench members of the government caucus did manage to call local open line shows and establish themselves as points of contact for emergency services. Remarks by the mayor of Lawn to CBC Radio’s Jeff Gilhooley on September 27 [audio link]  suggest that the way to get things done was to call ministers, not the emergency services officials.

What Wakeham and Simms are seeing is what the current government communications approach breeds.

The government party approaches everything in government as political, all the time. What people are seeing in the context of this emergency is nothing more than a carry-over from the sort of political communications described here in late 2006. [Permanent Campaign: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]

In that light, it isn’t surprising that, as Wakeham suggested, emergency management officials handed over “visual and public responsibility to cabinet ministers.”  Nor is it astonishing that the most important government communications the day after what proved to be the worst disaster for the province in modern times was not information needed by people affected by the disaster. It was about a sight-seeing tour by politicians who were not  - or who ought not to have been - involved directly in managing the crisis.

This is not the result of a conscious and cynical effort nor is it a new phenomenon.  As noted here previously, the fundamental problem with government emergency management dates back at least a decade.

The politicization of emergency response comes from two root causes.  First, the entire government is organized along lines that politicise everything.  It takes tendencies that existed before 2003 and exaggerates them to an extreme degree.  To get a sense of how the current administration operates, think about the controversy over fire inspections in which the political authorities silenced the acknowledged expert – the fire commissioner  - as the public spokesperson in favour of a cabinet minister who clearly knew very little about the subject.  In the current emergency, the entire system from top to bottom merely reverts to basic programming.

And that leads to the second point:  the absence of effective emergency management practices, particularly for communications. The current business plan and activity forecast for the fire and emergency services agency includes development of a communication plan as a priority of a new communications specialist hired only two years ago. This is the embodiment of the old axiom:  fail to plan; plan to fail. There are other factors, like training and experience, but the two noted here are the biggest contributors to what Simms and Wakeham are seeing.

The emergency in the aftermath of Hurricane Igor is bad enough.  The provincial government’s response has been hampered by weaknesses in the management of the response. There is reason to believe that some of the ministers involve recognise the problems in the current emergency response. These problems have been around for a while, but they only continue because politicians see a greater political value in taking over the public face of emergency response.  This emergency  - and the political risks associated with it - should be reason enough to ensure that whatever problems there are get sorted out before the next emergency, no matter how big or small it is.

- srbp -

Note:  The author is a public relations professional with more than 20 years senior management experience in the public and private sectors. That experience includes six years in the Premier’s office and six years as an army reserve public affairs officer.  In 1999/2000, the author was the Public Affairs Officer for Task Force Newfoundland and Labrador, part of the Department of National Defence’s preparation for the potential Y2K emergency.