What the public needs to hear during a disaster

December 14, 2005

Katrina revealed the impact of poor communications on the public during a disaster: chaos, distress and alarm. For future disaster communications, a new Temple University survey of Pennsylvanians* bears important findings, including how people prefer to get information during an emergency, which public agencies they're most confident in, attitudes toward emergency preparedness and actual preparedness. The findings will be presented today at the American Public Health Association meeting.

"The catastrophic failure of the emergency response system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina reinforces the need to better understand the public's concerns and to include the public in emergency planning and response. This will help state and local officials effectively communicate important information before, during and after disasters," said researcher, Sarah Bass, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health.

Bass defines effective risk communications as timely, relevant and true. "Effective communications during a disaster provides for people's doubts," she explained. "It can also reduce the mental stress and anguish that comes with anticipating and coping with disasters."

Bass and her colleagues analyzed survey results from 1500 families throughout Pennsylvania on their concerns, attitudes and practices regarding emergency preparedness, as well as exposure to disasters and generalized anxiety. As expected, people universally rely on television and radio for information during an emergency. But surprisingly, say the researchers, half of respondents would go to their clergy for information, highlighting the role that non-traditional communicators play in emergency response. In addition, 62 percent would turn to the Red Cross or Salvation Army, while 59 percent would turn to a public health agency.

A considerable proportion of the population is not fully comfortable with national policies about preparedness and homeland security: 25-35 percent disagree that new Homeland Security laws make them feel safer and 47 percent express concern about losing privacy because of these laws. Further, while most are confident in their family's and the government's preparedness, one-quarter is not.

"In light of the recent devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the need for strong confidence and trust in the government is important to response and recovery," said Bass.

The majority was aware of national efforts to improve disaster preparedness, but relatively few were aware of state's efforts to increase household preparation, including the Pennsylvania campaign to educate the public about "sheltering in place," or creating a shelter from where you are.

Most believed they were prepared for emergencies, but actually weren't. Pennsylvanians had done only three or four out of nine possible actions to be prepared.

Much of the preparedness involved purchasing items like batteries and duct tape. Yet, what experts say is the most important action--making a family plan--was only completed by 31 percent of respondents.

Finally, when asked which potential events concerned them most, the biggest concern was surprisingly, intentional contamination of food and water, something that has not happened in or near Pennsylvania. The event of least concern, exposure to anthrax through the mail, actually did occur near Pennsylvania in New Jersey and New York.

Bass believes these findings can help governments create more timely and effective messages, as well as choose and prepare appropriate spokespersons for the next event. She is currently working on several risk communications projects including effective emergency messaging for different ethnicities and cultures, as well as media training for emergency responders.
Joining Bass on the research team were Alice Hausman, Ph.D., professor and chair of public health at Temple's College of Health Professions as the project's principle investigator and Brenda Seals, Ph.D., assistant professor of public health, as the co-investigator. All are members of Temple's Center for Preparedness, Research, Education and Practice (C-PREP), which includes faculty and students from 13 departments and disciplines across the University. The goal of C-PREP is to address gaps in localities' disaster preparedness by determining the mental health impact of disasters on victims and emergency personnel; the role of risk communication in preparedness; and how to improve current preparedness policies and practices across a range of industries.

Note: In addition to receiving state support, the survey benefited from, and was incorporated into, the work of two other ongoing projects at Temple:* Pennsylvania has had both natural and perpetrated disasters.

Temple University

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