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Disaster communication rated

Fri., Sept. 21, 2007

The Inland Northwest officials charged with communicating crucial news during a disaster earned good marks from a media expert who advises the nation’s largest cities.

But the crew made the grade only after a day of advice, instruction and testing, said Cheryl Seigal, an instructor with Media Survival Group, a California-based disaster communications agency.

The public relations officers from Eastern Washington and North Idaho will have to continue to hone their skills if they hope to avoid a repeat of the miscommunications that occurred after the Whitley Fuel depot fire in July.

“At the beginning of the day, they were right there at a ‘C,’ ” said Seigal of the session that took place last month. “But by the end of the day, I would give them a ‘B-plus,’ with room to improve.”

The 20 representatives from health, education and law enforcement agencies easily earned an “A” for enthusiasm, said Seigal, who also works as the public information officer for the Umatilla County Emergency Management agency in Oregon.

They were eager to learn how to avoid the crossed signals, missing information and failure to respond that characterized the public health response when the Whitley fire sent choking smoke into the air and tainted runoff into the Spokane River.

A mock scenario involving an overturned semitruck leaking chlorine gas on a Spokane freeway forced the participants to learn to work as a team, Seigal said. During the drill, instructors posed as reporters and members of the public demanding answers to urgent questions.

“Was it perfect? I think anytime you do something for the first time, you learn something new,” Seigal said.

By the end of the session, participants had learned that coordination, delegation and practice are the keys to keeping people informed during an emergency.

In a time of crisis, communication will become vital, said Seigal, whose agency runs seminars that cost from $5,000 to $75,000. The local agencies received a deal, although Seigal wouldn’t say how much.

Natural disasters, hazardous materials spills or widespread, long-term public health crises – a virulent flu, for instance – would require a coordinated, confident response.

“We all know experience is the best teacher,” said Susan Nielsen, communications director for the Rockwood Clinic in Spokane. “The drill provided perspective and practice in a situation where no one was at risk.”

Having a coordinated communications team would have improved public understanding of crises as different as the 1996 ice storm in Spokane and the 2005 kidnapping of Shasta and Dylan Groene and murder of Dylan and other members of their family, said Cynthia Taggart, public information officer for the Panhandle Health District.

“There’s really no border in a huge emergency,” she said. “We would all work together.”

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