Emergency Risk Communication in Action

The events this week in Boston and West, Texas got me thinking about Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication and the important role it plays. I happened to check the news shortly after the explosion at the fertilization plant in West, Texas  on Wednesday. I continue to be surprised at how fast news travels around the world and how it has become possible to track news stories minute by minute as they unfold. Having just discussed Emergency Risk Communication in last week’s class, I found myself particularly curious about the way communication with the public was being handled in this event. When situations like this occur, there is obviously so much uncertainty, and I found myself really sympathizing with the people whose job it is to speak to the public despite their own lack of information about what is going on.

While many officials made statements to the public in the hours following the explosion, I found this one by State Trooper D.L. Wilson (http://www.kwtx.com/home/headlines/Explosion-Injuries-Reported-At-West-Fertilizer-Plant-203505331.html) particularly interesting in light of our readings and discussions on Risk Communication, especially because it appears to be one of the earlier statements made after the explosion. I thought it would be interesting to analyse it in comparison to the elements that Parvanta lays out in our class textbook about communicating with the public in these instances (p. 356).

  • You care about the people who were harmed and their loved ones
  • You are putting a response in place
  • Here is what you know now
  • This is how you know it
  • Here is what you do not know
  • This is why you do not know it
  • Here is what you are doing to find out the rest

Overall, I think the state trooper started off his emergency risk communication fairly well, recognizing that people were harmed, taking a sympathetic tone, and giving information about the response efforts in terms of firefighters and emergency medical services. He also mentions that gas is being turned off in the area; ostensibly referring to the prevention of any further explosions. He outlines what is known, that there are many injuries and some fatalities, but he acknowledges that they do not have any numbers.

One thing that really jumped out at me in the state trooper’s briefing is the comparison to Iraq and the Oaklahoma City bombing in 1995. This contradicts one of Peter Sandman’s recommendations for emergency risk communication about being careful about risk comparators. In saying that the damage was “just like” these other two events, while perhaps only attempting to characterize the physical destruction, the state trooper may risk heightening people’s outrage about the event without providing any framing about how these events differ.

The state trooper also does not give people anything to do, and in fact, speaks about how they do not need more help. While he seems to be referring to help from emergency professionals, it is likely that the public close to the affected area are hearing this and might want to know more about any measures that they should take to avoid risks, for example from pollutants in the air.

From a public health perspective, there is very little mention of implications of the explosion for the population at large around the area. While at the time he is speaking, there is clearly much uncertainty around the event, injuries, and possible after effects, I was struck by the extent to which the statement is coming from a law enforcement perspective and therefore emphasizes issues of emergency response and re-establishing order. It does not speak much to concerns people in the area might have for their own health and safety. If I think about the amount of times I have heard these types of press briefings, it is most often from law enforcement officials. This made me consider the role of public health officials in such emergency situations and how much access we might really have to the public and to the media following events like this that have to do with public safety, but also likely have health implications.

References:

12 confirmed dead in Texas fertilizer plant explosion (2013, April 19). CBC. http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2013/04/19/texas-fertilizer-explosion.html

Oklahoma city bombing: http://www.history.com/topics/oklahoma-city-bombing

Parvanta, C. et al. (2011). Essentials of Public Health Communication.  Mississauga, Ontario: Jones and Bartlett Learning: 347-360.

Trooper D.L. Wilson Press Conference: http://www.kwtx.com/home/headlines/Explosion-Injuries-Reported-At-West-Fertilizer-Plant-203505331.html

– Aislin

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