Ebola. Are you tired of hearing about it yet? Not that it isn’t a notable virus that deserves our attention and our preparations, but as emergency managers, our job right now is not to eliminate the threat. Our job right now has very little to do with the actual virus itself. Allow me to make a case for you.
This blog just got serious…
Ebola is a virus that is spread through contact of the bodily fluids of an infected person. It’s not in the air and to get it, you’d have to have a direct exposure that allowed for entry into your own body. Once you’ve got it, yeah, that’s a problem. But in many places, especially the US, actually catching the disease? That is not going to be easy.
Lots of viruses are spread this way and our hospital systems are not only prepared, trained and ready for what’s already here, they’re prepared for what’s coming. Personal protective equipment exists to build a barrier between our healthcare workers and those who require their services. Processes and procedures have been in place to handle the worst of the worst for years on years. So, why then all the fuss, and what are emergency managers actually supposed to be doing with this?
We already know that people fear what they don’t know, and that there are so many unanswered questions about the disease itself is the worst kind of unknown. Where does it originate? Can it mutate? Why isn’t there a cure? I get it – I find these questions intriguing myself!
Right now, however, our job isn’t to answer these questions. Our job lies in the public panic. I would estimate that is roughly 85% of our responsibility since the beginning of disease spread. Of course there is training, drills, exercises and inter-agency communication to be done, but the major focus simply must be on communicating clearly with the public. Most essentially on a local level. Why? Because the public has a disconnect in personal trust on a federal level.
And why shouldn’t they? They don’t “know” federal departments. Federal agencies aren’t first responders, and they’re more often than not separated from the local message and response. They have a huge task before them (i.e answering those questions above that we aren’t challenged to solve), but they won’t be able to truly touch public panic and public perception.
As emergency managers, it isn’t our job to answer the questions of the specialty agencies we support. What we need to focus on is developing a consistent, calming, accurate message from our partner agencies to our community members, because their perceptions and their unnecessary panic is the emergency right now.
Those plans you’ve worked so diligently on? People need to know they exist. Those exercises you participate in? People need to know that they happened. We can’t answer the questions that make people so afraid, but we can keep fear from turning into panic by showing all of the ways we have always been prepared and we will continue to be prepared. Our community members need to hear from us that we have a plan, that they can trust we know what we’re doing. And we need to be trusted enough to explain how these scary things work, and what we’ll do about it.
It won’t be enough to go out and tell everyone they have nothing to worry about. Let’s face it, that message ain’t gonna cut it! It’s okay to allow our community members to feel something. But when was the last time a scare tactic changed anything about anyone’s actual preparedness status? Go ahead, I’ll give you some time to think about it…
Scare tactics don’t work. We need to communicate all of this, take away the element of panic, and turn relevant concern into beneficial action.
Explaining what we do, having a consistent presence, facilitating that message and then showing people that just as we have prepared ourselves for the worst of the worst, so too can they prepare, is where the success is. Our plans don’t fall to the wayside because they’re flexible enough to fit the different disasters we face. Our plans, kits and equipment are adaptable. Anyone’s can be, if they know where to start.
Here’s the catch…it really only works if your community has faith in your message.
Do you exist outside of the walls of your office? Does your agency know you, does your community know you? Are you equipped to lead the message our public needs to hear, or will you be out of touch? And, for those of you who dread the role of the public information officer, that doesn’t mean being the man or woman on camera. That means being a part of the development of the message and being a trusted source people can turn to in order to successfully receive it.
What have you done to create a trustworthy atmosphere in your community in advance of times like these where our success relies so heavily on our ability to share critical information? Are you prepared for what happens if the community doesn’t hear us and panic does ensue?
Right now is the right time to get ahead of your message, and if you already are, it’s a great time to tell someone else how you’re nailing it.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.