Thursday, January 12, 2006

This is a Test of the Emergency Webcasting System

Last week, I heard the Emergency Broadcast System begin honking its dissonant alarm on my television set. (This was also strange, because the television is almost never on.) It wasn't a test. I shouted for the kids. For a few moments I imagined the dirty bomb or chemical attack we would have to flee. But it turned out that the occasion for the activation of the system was only our recent heavy rains in the Southland.

So I thought it worth investigating how e-government is adapting to the possibility of providing public service announcements to victims of natural disasters or terrorism. After all, the Internet was designed for the scenario of a cataclysmic nuclear event that would knock out traditional communications. And I am someone more likely to be online than in front of the tube, just like an increasing number of Americans.

The website for the Emergency Alert System is a minimal, functional affair. However, in the process of my investigations, I discovered a field of public rhetoric about which I had been previously ignorant: "risk communication." Within academia, risk communication is making many of the same opening moves to establish its legitimacy as a discipline, as are similarly novel fields in political discourse like "public diplomacy" and "social marketing." The central challenge of risk communication is to convey information while avoiding both lurid forecasts that would set off a panic and polyanna-ish pablum that would make people distrust the veracity of officials (and then set off a panic).

I also discovered this amazing logo from the Center for Risk Communication in New York. Of course, I personally tend to want competent and straightforward emergency aid in a disaster, not a spokesperson who feels my pain. A pie-chart that is half-pathos and half-ethos with no logos just doesn't do it for me. I think it is comforting, especially in an disaster, to hear: "You should do X rather than Y BECAUSE . . . "

After the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration set up a SAMSHA Risk Communication site featuring Flash graphics with dynamic lettering that reads:

"Since the events of September 11, public sensitivity to terror and fear of further crises have posed unprecedented challenges. One of the challenges is how information is communicated to the public in timely, accurate ways that do not heighten concern and fear."

During this section of the introduction, the text of the words "September 11" and "unprecedented" looms to fill much of the screen. Then the visitor is treated to some panic-inducing atmospheric sights of grainy black and white photos and sounds from ambulances and falling debris. Finally the screen asks us:

  • "What are the messages prior to, during, and after serious crises such as unusual disease or bioterrism?"
  • "What are the opportunities for effective communication & how can they be maximized?"
  • "What questions can we anticipate from the public in risk situations?"
  • "What are the news media's responsibilities and how can you help reporters meet them?"

Since the threat of avian influenza has been much in the news of late, risk communication is getting new media attention as well. The avian influenza page on the World Health Organization paints a grim image of global mass casualties, while the page with the same theme on the Center for Disease Control is considerably less fatalistic, although it does point out that we are currently at a color-coded "Stage Three" in their pandemic six phase system.

Of course, in the risk communication field, no government graphic of late has produced more parodic responses than the terrorism alert system from the Office of Homeland Security. These send-ups include the Code Pink color spoof, the Liberal Terror Alert System, the Democracy Threat Advisory System, the Terror Alert system, Betty Bowers Terror Alert, the amateur Color Coded Terror Response Comedy Piece, Terror Level Alerts: Collect Them All, and this wonderful terror alert system, which flouts intellectual property law, that you can put on your very own home page.

If you are in your bomb shelter or behind your duct taped windows as you read this, maybe you could play these FEMA games to pass the time.

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

I am thinking about downloading the Risk Communication Pie Chart and making it into a fridge magnet or perhaps coasters. It will help me with anger management when my four kids are pushing me to the limit. But I agree: I think I'd want some information in there, along with all that thoughtful panic control, if there were a real emergency.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

By making your analogy to parenting, I think that you have picked up on the implicit assumption in the Risk Communication field that the public should be treated like children.

12:36 AM  

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