Wednesday, November 12, 2014

When you can't see the threat

In Florida, we are very fortunate when it comes to our disasters. Ever since the first global weather satellite coverage in 1975, it has been virtually impossible for a hurricane to sneak up on our coast, visiting terrible destruction upon our residents.

The first ever GOES satellite image taken in October, 1975
For other parts of the world, the threats come with less warning, but plenty of notice. The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma can forecast when conditions are right for tornado formation. Geologists at the USGS can state with certainty where fault lines lie, alerting residents to the threat posed by earthquakes. And, when it comes to hazardous materials transported by truck or rail car, people who live near those potential hazardous materials spills can see and understand the threat that faces them.

Epidemiologists study the spread of infectious diseases
But, what about threats that are so small, they can't be seen with the naked eye?  Those threats sure are out there, and they have the potential to cause panic when they are introduced to a population. Those threats are the many illnesses which can become epidemic - or even worse - pandemic.

Is there reason to be concerned about diseases even in the 21st century? You bet. Believe it or not, arguably the deadliest pandemic in human history happened just shy of a century ago. At the end of World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic spread like wildfire, infecting nearly half a billion people and killing between 50 and 100 million.

Soldiers near Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with the flu
As we saw during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and recently with Ebola, illnesses still have a unique ability to cause outright panic in residents. After all, if you can see something as damaging as a hurricane, you can do things to get out of its way and reduce its impact on you and your property. If you can't see the microbes causing the illness, people tend to become deeply concerned about their safety and well being.

Many of us are not public health PIOs - we may be working for the local fire or law enforcement agency. Maybe the local county, city or school board. Maybe the transit authority or a hospital. So, we may not be the lead agency when it comes to handling things such as pandemic infections.

But, that doesn't mean we get a free pass. The people we work with are counting on us to give accurate, timely information - and repeat that information as many times as necessary - to ensure they know the right steps to take to keep themselves and their families safe.

Information on steps to prevent the spread of illness - such as obtaining flu shots - can be beneficial
In an event like this, building a joint information system is critical. Basically, a joint information system is taking the time to get to know your colleagues in different organizations who serve the community you do. If you are a city PIO, get to know the PIOs in the surrounding cities, your county, even your state. Get in touch with the power company spokespeople, the school board and the public information team at the local hospitals. Cast your net wide, and understand how effectively each of these team members can reach out to their constituency.

Most importantly, be sure to keep each other in the loop. That should be a given for any type of disaster, but even more so when it comes to something unseen like an illness. By doing this, you can keep up on the latest information and also forward the rumors you are hearing to the people who have the right answers.

Just like a virus, bad information and rumor are contagious. The best inoculation is good, actionable information.

Tom Iovino, Public Information Specialist
Pinellas County, Florida

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