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Macon Ready: Public information key to Macon-Bibb disaster response

Emmitsburg, Md. -- In the heat of a major catastrophe, getting critical information to the public is crucial to saving lives and establishing trust.

At FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute, 60 Macon-Bibb County leaders are learning the challenges communities face when not only local folks, but the eyes of the world are looking to them for news.

“If people don’t know what’s happening and what to do, then they are not going to respond accordingly,” said Pam Collins, a public information specialist and FEMA adjunct instructor.

During Tuesday morning’s briefing, Collins urged the representatives of Macon-Bibb government and private sector agencies and organizations to have plans in place to ensure the public has the information they need or they will turn to other unofficial and sometimes inaccurate sources, such as social media.

“Never before have we seen as much user-generated content,” Collins warned.

Emergency Operation Centers must monitor social media to gauge the impact of the disaster and the effectiveness of relief operations.

Disaster planners should also consider the community groups affected and tailor messages to those groups.

For example, you wouldn’t explain a complicated situation to an adult the same way as you would tell a child.

Communities also must plan alternative means of communication, such as flyers, if traditional technology fails.

Interpreters are necessary if a town has large pockets of non-English speaking people.

Although relationships between officials and the media can be contentious at times, most of that melts away when the public is in jeopardy and the primary focus becomes getting time sensitive information to the public, she said.

Collins lauded Macon-Bibb EMA for inviting The Telegraph to the specialized training and “understanding media play a critical role.”

Instead of isolating reporters, disaster planners should make sure they have safe access to the scene.

Public information officers should never try to control journalists, but provide what they need in a crisis.

“If you don’t feed the animals, they will forage,” Collins said.

During an earlier presentation, emergency planning expert Lanita McGee put it another way: “You must feed the beast or it will eat you.”

On this special assignment where I am embedded in the disaster scenario, my new nickname is “The Beast.”

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