Currently in California and Oregon, mass evacuations are underway as a result of three of the nine largest wildfires in that state’s history.
As an emergency responder on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) Wildfire, (commonly known as the Fort McMurray Fires), I had a front-row seat to the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history, with upwards of 90,000 people displaced from their homes and 3,244 structures destroyed. Economic costs as a result of the fires were among the highest in Canadian history to date, with insured property damage estimated at $3.58 billion.
A common feature of disaster season over the past number of years has been the devastating impact of wildfires, and severe economic and environmental consequences as a result. According to Natural Resources Canada, climate change and climate variability have altered patterns of lightning, temperature, precipitation and vegetation. These altered conditions have increased the potential for fire, with some estimates suggesting a doubling of the area burned by the end of the century.
According to some reports, communication gaps contributed to mixed messages to residents regarding the need to evacuate, while others have highlighted how the rapid escalation of the fire overwhelmed the ability to respond. In order to continue to develop best response practises, it is worth considering the unique requirements of evacuees, including the method, breadth and timeliness of information dissemination.
Issues surrounding internal EOC communications, including field interoperability and technology will be covered in a future post.
Information requirements for wildfire evacuees was studied in an article by S.M. McCaffrey et. al. in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters published in 2013. The recommendations outlined in this report reference the residents affected by wildfires in Arizona and Colorado in 2010, but have obvious applicability to future events of this type.
As expected, the authors of the study found that those most impacted by a wildfire event would have the greatest need for information, particularly regarding evacuation, road closures, protection of property and disaster recovery. Previously evacuated survey respondents reflected a common concern that critical information was not provided by authorities in a timely manner. In practise, this lack of timely information provides fertile ground for misinformation to spread, particularly on social media.
Evacuees have access to multiple information sources. The study’s findings show that evacuees gravitate away from static sources (i.e. radio) towards those that incorporate two-way communication, as in social media. The increased functionality of social media allows evacuees to seek and source locally specific information that may not be available in traditional formats.
As emergency management professionals, how can we ensure that evacuees have access to information in as timely a manner as possible? The review of literature and anecdotal evidence highlights important trends and lessons that may be applied to future hazards:
- Early establishment of credibility. It is important that updates and information be vetted and distributed through the PIO, reporting to the Incident Commander. A ‘bias for candor’, established early in the crisis will go a significant way towards establishment of trust and compliance with subsequent orders.
- Criticality of consistent, centralized communication. While disruptions, distress and tension cannot be ameliorated completely, it is critical to ensure a coordinated approach to messaging. Establishing early credibility and transparency, from a source deemed credible, goes a long way towards reducing the risk of the disaster becoming ‘weaponized’ by those seeking to spread mis/disinformation.
- Telling the truth. Most people can handle the truth, it is the obfuscation and withholding of information that does a great deal of damage. Understandably, Command Staff are reluctant to release information that may cause further distress to those affected. Paradoxically, this ‘bias for candor’ but may reduce the risk associated with those who would seek to assess property damage on their own.
- Demonstrating empathy. In a response scenario where “all hell is breaking loose”, it is sometimes hard to remember the people we are serving, in many cases, are having the worst day of their lives. As the saying goes, “ Before people will listen to you, they need to know you care about them.” To this end, employing social media monitors, to engage in a two-way dialogue with affected individuals offering psychosocial supports is a critical element of the response.
In a disaster scenario, emergency responders are wise to invest in resources and initiatives that may assist impacted individuals with factual, empathic and transparent communications.