Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Define 'Emergency'

The rains that we experienced last week here in the Tampa Bay area have sparked an interesting discussion among emergency managers, our residents and the local media - what exactly constitutes an emergency?

This kind of effort is definitely required during an emergency
I don't for one minute doubt that something like the impact of - say - Hurricane Katrina could be misunderstood for anything other than a full-blown, according to Hoyle disaster.  Hundreds of lives lost, thousands of people displaced, billions of dollars of damage. You bet, that's the time when everyone comes out to help with the recovery effort.

Definitely an emergency for this family
And, for a family, to see their home go up in flames is an emergency to them, but the scope is so small that it really can't be considered an emergency for the entire community.

Where we sometimes fall down is explaining to our residents, members of the media and even sometimes to members of our own organizations what truly constitutes an emergency. I can distinctly remember the aftermath of Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 here in the Tampa Bay area. While the season was scary for Pinellas County, the amount of damage we experienced was so little when compared to other parts of the state.

And, when FEMA employees were sent into the field with fliers containing information on where people could get assistance, storm-weary residents who were without power for a week or so were quick to vent their anger at them. Where is the federal money? Who is coming to restore my power? Where can I get ice? Can't you tell this is an emergency?

The amazing thing was that one block away, the local grocery store was open, fully powered and it had bags of ice they were selling at a steep discount to help residents keep their food - and themselves - cool.

A water heater prepared for earthquakes using steel straps
The reality is that the definition of what constitutes an emergency can vary based on conditions, locale and people's level of preparedness. People who live in earthquake-prone zones who have used quake resistant construction materials and practices will barely batt an eyelash when a 5.0 quake shakes the house, where those who live places where quakes aren't that common may believe that a state of emergency needs to exist after one happens where they live.

The best way for us to define an emergency is to set our own terms. A population is much more ready to weather any situation when they have the know-how, supplies and plans in place before the disaster happens. Once the event outstrips that, then you know you have an emergency on your hands.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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