The 7.1-magnitude earthquake that shook communities across Southern California this July (and the 6.4 magnitude before it) was the end of a nearly 20-year slumber by Southern California’s tectonic plates. And though damage was relatively light and there were fortunately no fatalities, seismologists expect similar earthquakes to become far more common after an abnormal two-decade lull in seismic activity.
Such occurrences are a reminder that proper disaster preparation and management will be critical when the “big one” does hit and governments must quickly gather resources and personnel. Often, the greatest danger happens in the aftermath of an earthquake and not during the actual quake itself.
In times like these, federal, state and local governments must communicate clearly and effectively to coordinate rescue missions, disable hazardous gas and electricity lines, all the while preventing chaos from taking hold. Maintaining order depends on clear communication with the public both during and after an incident, a lack of which can cause mass panic just as dangerous as the actual disaster.
An earthquake early warning app developed by Los Angeles, for example, could have given residents nearly a minute of warning before the Ridgecrest quake began, providing time to find a safe location and mitigating at least some of the shock factor. Instead, people were left in the dark, and the city announced in the quake’s aftermath that it would lower the earthquake magnitude threshold that triggers an alert.
Disseminating accurate information to the public is also a more difficult task than ever before. Fake news and social media conspiracies combined with telecom networks that frequently jam create the potential for an even greater disaster, fed by misinformation and fear. That’s been the case in numerous natural disasters over the past several years, including the 2014 Napa earthquake in which Twitter users accused the U.S. military of torturing U.S. citizens.
That’s why a properly designed crisis communications program should incorporate multi-modal technology to instantaneously deliver messages across various mediums. These include cell phones, social media, television, laptops/tablets and connected devices.
However, a crisis management system isn’t just a means of keeping the public safe. It’s also a way to manage emergency stakeholders and first responders. Municipalities with emergency management software can better coordinate with first responders during a crisis. Combined with a response management system, responder teams can collaborate on the ground and communicate from the field to the appropriate agencies and stakeholders. An emergency alert system with two-way communications capabilities allows governments to adapt to changing conditions. Such a system must be interoperable across the vast range of networks, devices and media that various agencies, first responders and government officials employ. This way, a uniform, streamlined message is conveyed to all without any room for misinterpretation or confusion.
The Ridgecrest earthquake was in many ways a gentle wake-up call, its damage mitigated by the epicenter’s remote location. But another earthquake is a matter of when, not if, and experts caution that a similar temblor in a more densely populated area would inevitably cause casualties and widespread destruction.
We must prepare today for the earthquake disaster we know is coming tomorrow, and that starts by ensuring we have reliable and secure platforms in place for critical crisis communications.