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Information communicated during an evacuation needs to be accurate and consistent. One way to handle this is the use of a joint information center that manages the information in order to deliver a consistent message. In addition, the media will eventually become involved in the evacuation situation and can be a valuable ally.

Consistent Information – Information needs to be accurate and consistent to evacuees. As reported in Disaster Response and Evacuation User Service: An Addendum to the ITS Program Plan, “A comprehensive public information strategy is necessary. Coordinate evacuation public information between emergency management, transportation, and other allied agencies so that consistent, accurate information is provided to evacuees.”

In response to the need for consistent information, the National Disaster Education Coalition released “Talking about Disaster: A Guide for Standard Messages.” The 2004 Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop: Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado presentation “Transportation and Evacuation Issues in Emergencies: S04-3,” reported: “the updated guide was produced with collaboration from 20 disaster preparedness organizations in the US and attempts to provide consistent, accurate information on various types of disasters to the public. It includes standardized safety messages on 20 natural, technological, and human-induced hazards as well as general disaster preparedness and safety topics.”

Joint Information Center and Information Management – Information found in the literature search suggests one entity provide information for multiple agencies involved in the evacuation incident. This allows for the development of a consistent message to the media and the public. The San Bernardino County Fire Chiefs’ Association: Lessons Learned Report: Fire Storm 2003: “Old Fire” reported: “The San Bernardino County Fire Chiefs’ Association (during the southern California wildfires) recognizes the need to establish a centralized multi-agency Joint Information Center. A centralized Joint Information Center will permit the public agencies to provide a proactive, unified message to the media and the community, which is critical in communicating the latest fire and evacuation information. The San Bernardino County Fire Chiefs’ Association also recognizes that large, multi-agency incidents receive national and international attention and that an individual agency’s public information officer will become inundated with requests for information very quickly. Therefore, the public information officers needed to think well beyond the customary everyday information officer’s activities.”

According to the report, “the Joint Information Center staff also included some who had worked in the Joint Information Center at San Bernardino during the Southern California firestorm in 2003, and they applied lessons learned from that experience. In particular, they suggested that the Joint Information Center maintain a philosophy of ‘the buck stops here,’ making every effort to be the last, best point of contact for concerned residents. This meant making the extra effort to track down legitimate answers to questions, even if that required calling residents back with the answer.”

According to Southern California Firestorm 2003: Report for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, the Joint Information Center staff “combined the public affairs resources of numerous full-time and professional public affairs staff of city and county cooperating agencies, combining them with the technical expertise of the wildland agencies.” The report also noted, “a proactive, well-staffed Joint Information Center not only provided current information but also helped form public opinion. Senior leaders said it was important to tell the success stories of fuels hazard reduction programs in order to gain political and public support for future efforts.”

However, there was some criticism of the communication efforts by fire personnel, according to the Southern California Firestorm 2003 report: “Many respondents reflected that information efforts did not consider some unique factors in a major media market like Los Angeles or San Diego. They felt the information campaign must consider the impact of commercial mass media, including talk radio, in shaping public opinion. In one case, talk radio hosts significantly drove public opinion, with very negative influence. Consequently, respondents felt that at a time when the community needed to pull together, it was being divided over information provided by a popular radio host with national exposure. Instead of focusing on its mission of getting information out to the public, the information function had to focus on the distraction of defending itself against attack.”

Southern California Firestorm 2003 reported that in areas were there was no Joint Information Center: “Many respondents reported the public and media received fragmented and often conflicting and confusing information—and different agencies had different information at different times. Rumors circulated, and the public and media filled the information voids with whatever voices were available (during the southern California wildfires). This usually did not reflect well on the responding agencies and created firefighter morale problems as they and their efforts were portrayed inaccurately.”

Sharing of Information – Sharing information between entities is critical and could prevent an evacuation. As reported in the CSX Train Derailment and Subsequent Fire in the Howard Street Tunnel, Baltimore, Maryland, July 18, 2001 (National Transportation Safety Board Accident Report: Railroad Accident BriefAccident Number: DCA-01-MR-004), “During the course of the investigation (Howard Street rail tunnel fire), it became apparent that information about modifications and construction in or near the tunnel had not been reliably documented or exchanged among interested parties. For example, there was an opening in the tunnel’s arch immediately below the 40-inch water main where a repair had at least been started. Safety Board investigators attempted to obtain information about this void and repair, but neither CSX nor the city of Baltimore knew of or had documentation about when the void was first discovered or who had initiated the repair. In another instance, information used by the city of Baltimore indicated that a storm sewer was 19 feet below the surface near a test drilling. However, during the drilling project, the drill struck the storm sewer, which was actually only about 8 feet below the surface.”

According to the National Transportation Safety Board Accident Report, the Board made the following safety recommendations as a result of its investigation of the Howard Street Tunnel railroad accident, “To CSX Transportation, Inc.: Maintain historical documentation of maintenance and inspection activities affecting the Howard Street Tunnel. (R-04-13) Take action necessary to enhance the exchange of information with the city of Baltimore on maintenance and construction activities within and in the vicinity of the Howard Street Tunnel. (R-04-14) To the city of Baltimore, Maryland: Take action necessary to enhance the exchange of information with CSX Transportation on maintenance and construction activities within and in the vicinity of the Howard Street Tunnel. (R-04-15).”

Communication between entities regarding infrastructure could prevent the need for an evacuation.

Sharing of information is critical during evacuations. On March 6, 2005, a railcar leaked toxic chemicals (hazardous materials) in Salt Lake City, Utah, forcing the evacuation of over 6,000 people. Authorities evacuated a half-square mile area around the accident site. As reported in the article “Toxic Chemical Spill Forces Thousands to Evacuate,” “fifteen hours after the leak was discovered Sunday morning, officials still were not certain of the contents of the leaking tanker, but they were pumping it into portable tanks and were letting people return to their homes. Officials were angered that they could not pin down what was in the tank and the information they were given conflicted with their own observations. The manifest said it was sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids; the company told them it was hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, nitric and sulfuric acids. Late Sunday, the company corrected itself, saying the contents were phosphoric, acetic, sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids, and ammonia—all at a concentration of only 10 percent.” Officials took some time to respond to the crisis due to the lack of information on the contents of the railcar. Having the correct manifest information might have reduced the response time.

Relationships with the Media – During evacuations, the media will eventually become involved and either assist evacuation efforts or not (not necessarily by design). As cited in the literature, the media can be a valuable ally.

During the I-95 tanker explosion incident in Baltimore, the media was used to assist in providing information to the general public. As reported in I-95 Shutdown: Coordinating Transportation and Emergency Response: “Using Maryland’s battery of ITS tools, including variable message signs, highway advisory radio, and the Web, traffic managers and police units launched the quick response that moved travelers away from the incident. Later, after the traffic situation was under control, the story of what caused the crash and speculation on the road closure took on new importance. The media became a valuable ally in sharing current information as people turned to news programs at home or switched to radio programs with regular traffic and news updates. ‘The public depends on accurate and timely information from news reports,’ says Major Shipley. ‘We wanted to be sure to keep reporters in the loop as much as possible while remaining sensitive to the investigative aspects of the situation.’ That cooperation extended to broadcasting the message that two lanes were reopened and mitigating the effects of the inevitable rubbernecking that would take place as motorists passed by the scene.”

The media can also influence evacuation behavior. For example, during Hurricane Floyd, “‘the Weather Channel got blamed for [much of the evacuation problems] because they really hyped it, but people were really taking their cues from what they believed public officials were saying,’ said Jay Baker, the Florida State University professor who completed the study,” as reported in the article “Floyd-Hit States Ready for Hurricane Season.”

The media could also receive incorrect evacuation messages from the government. The article “Emergency Broadcast Test Mistakenly Calls for Evacuation,” reported: “Despite what residents may have seen on television, the state of Connecticut was not ordered to evacuate on Tuesday [February 1, 2005]. State emergency management officials said a worker entered the wrong code during the weekly test of the emergency alert system, leading television viewers and radio listeners to believe that the state was being evacuated. ‘Civil authorities have issued an immediate evacuation order for all of Connecticut, beginning at 2:10 p.m. and ending at 3:10 p.m.,’ a message that scrolled across television screens read. ‘There is absolutely no evacuation or state emergency,’ said Kerry Flaherty of the Office of Emergency Management. ‘It was an erroneous message.’ State officials sent faxes to every police department in the state, notifying them that it was a false alarm. Workers who enter the codes read off a monitor and punch them in on a keypad, triggering the test or alert, Flaherty said. He said the code for the weekly test is one line below the code for evacuation, and the worker entered the wrong code.”

Single Communication Facility – The need for a single facility to communicate has been identified in the literature. The TR News article “Emergency Evacuation: Ensuring Safe and Efficient Transportation Out of Endangered Areas” reported: “Transportation officials involved in evacuations have cited the need for better communication among the various emergency management, transportation, and law enforcement agencies involved. Communication difficulties with the public also were significant. Many states are combining emergency management personnel and resources in single facilities.”

February 7, 2006
Publication #FHWA–HOP-08-015