Haiti Emergency Communications: 3 Lessons from the Epicenter

The downtown core shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm yesterday, January 12, 2009.
The downtown core shows the damage after an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm yesterday, January 12, 2009.
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Haiti emergency communications — as is the case with nearly all natural disasters of scale — relied on processes and procedures put in place before the disaster, underscoring the need for earthquake, tsunami and hurricane preparedness.  When every cell tower in a nation is down, channels soon become overloaded and communicators must depend on disaster communications systems.

At a time when Japan is responding to a devastating tsunami and a man made nuclear disaster, this crisis communications post mortem features 3 critical lessons learned during the Haiti Earthquake by Barbara Burfeind and Lt. Commander Heidi Lenzini, who shared responsibility for informing the world about the devastating earthquake that killed 300,000 people last January.

When disaster strikes, you can never be too prepared.  So take a moment and ask yourself, if you were tasked with communicating on behalf of your organization during a major crisis, are you ready?  Consider these insights straight from the trenches about crisis communications for emergency response for evaluating your emergency response readiness:

1. Determine How Bandwidth will be Allocated during an Emergency

When phone lines and consumer internet fails, emergency communications become tied to logistics.  Image capture and communications rely on transportation, supply and the availability of transmission bandwidth.  Juggling communications and the actual recovery efforts is an ongoing balancing act.

As the recent, planned internet blackouts by besieged North African despots in response to prodemocracy demonstrations underscores, unless a priority is placed on communications by leadership, it is impossible for communications to get out. Involve leadership in your preparedness exercises to identify the means by which transmission bandwidth will be managed and allocated during an emergency.

2. Minimize Inbound Demand with Discoverable Media Channels

Combine old tools and social media channels to manage the avalanche of inbound requests during a crisis by making information discoverable on a self-serve basis. Old standbys like the voicemail greetings and web pages became valuable tools during the Haiti earthquake, and they were consistently updated with fresh, useful information. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds added another level of discoverability by allowing the team to disseminate links, while reducing inbound call volume and keeping people up to date.

3. Identify Back-Up Communications Channels

What would you do in a disaster without telephone, power or cell service? The U.S. Military has back-up communications systems in place.  Do you?  Emergency communications preparedness also means securing the right equipment to call for help or alert the authorities during an emergency that chokes off your existing channels. At a bare minimum, get a two-way radio with a hand-crank charging option so you can signal for help and get the word out when all systems fail.

This blog post was written from an audio interview with Burfeind and Lenzini conducted by Eric Schwartzman for On the Record…Online.

Burfeind is chief of Plans and Integration for Defense Visual Information within the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.  Her team had the task of ensuring that Combat Camera (COMCAM) photographers were able to arrive and capture images used by the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. military commands to understand the extent of the damage, and which assets should be sent immediately as part of the disaster recovery mission. Her group oversees the Defense Imagery Management Operations Center (DIMOC), which in turn administers defenseimagery.mil.

Lenzini, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. She was manning the Public Affairs duty phone for US Southern Command when the Haitian earthquake hit.  Her crisis team was the lead source of emergency communications to for the world press on Haiti until a joint information center was established up a week after the quake.

Natural and man-made disasters always seems far away, until they strike.  According to geologists, the State of California, in which some nuclear power plants operate close to fault lines, has a 67% chance of experiencing an earthquake of the same scale as the Honshu, Japan quake within the next 30 years.  If you haven’t taken the time to establish an emergency communications plan, or haven’t drilled your crisis communications program with leadership lately, now is the time.

By UN Photo/Logan Abassi UNDP Global – originally posted to Flickr as Peacekeeping – MINUSTAH, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8983502

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