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Act Now Regarding The Coronavirus And Emergency Management
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 03/23/2020

Warden An elderly woman snatched a roll of toilet paper from the shelf this morning at a store close to the Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Florida. She had three packages of toilet paper and I was reaching for the one remaining. She growled at me that she needed all four. I let it go without complaint beyond warning her that others may not take so kindly to her aggressive stance. “That’s just too fricking bad,” she responded.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) is sweeping the country on an endless variety of fronts scaring the hell out of shoppers who can’t get toilet paper or sanitizers or their favorite foods. The stock market and economy is tanking. There are multiple media accounts of people buying firearms and ammunition. The criminal justice system is compromised via postponed trials and possible early releases from jails and prisons.

The medical implications are endless. A friend shared a post on Facebook stating that Johns Hopkins University researchers claimed that most Americans would contract the virus. I urged her to remove the post.

As to those of us in the law enforcement and emergency management communities, we sit back like all other citizens and take in the whirlwind of news. We wait and wonder when all of this will have real implications for a civil society.

I’ve been here before but on a smaller scale. I handled major events that received international, national and regional news coverage. Examples include: Hurricane Katrina (first non-FEMA employee at FEMA headquarters working public affairs), 9-11 events, hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, plane crashes, community evacuations, prison riots, major crimes, police shootings, the return of American hostages before the start of the first Middle East war and endless news stories with major policy considerations. I’ve been trained by FEMA. I know how things can get out of hand.

Yes, I understand that the law enforcement and emergency management communities get all this and preparations are being made. But, and it’s a big “but,” many of us within government and journalism have never seen the potential for a mass disturbance on a major scale at all levels.

There are five points I would like to make:

Inexperienced Journalists

The media corps covering the coronavirus has been decimated by job losses. “From 2008 to 2018, newsroom employment in the U.S. dropped by 25%. In 2008, about 114,000 newsroom employees – reporters, editors, photographers, and videographers – worked in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and “other information services” By 2018, that number had declined to about 86,000, a loss of about 28,000 jobs”, Pew.

To put it bluntly, some of our best journalists have either retired or have lost their jobs. For those of us in the justice system, I’ve always said that there is nothing more dangerous than an inexperienced cop. That same philosophy also applies to inexperienced journalists.

Old school reporters kept their heads, they understood how things worked, they knew when sources were full of crap. They understood how rumors and misinformation are created and used to advance causes.

And believe me, everyone has an agenda. I assume that you are aware of an infamous quote, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before,” Rahm Emanuel.

The point is that many (most?) our best and brightest journalists at all levels have left us. That doesn’t mean to degrade the endless thousands of current reporters but experience is the great teacher. Calm heads pounding away at computers to file stories on the coronavirus are worth their weight in gold. An inexperienced reporter or editor being bombarded by multiple sources may not know the real story and do tremendous harm.

Social Media

I have made the point on my personal website at LeonardSipes.Com that I can create a green screen video using stock footage and music that can be unbelievably realistic. I can pound these out multiple times an hour. They will look and sound like a real news broadcast. I can spread any rumor I want on multiple social media platforms. It’s been my experience that people will do this simply because they can. Like mass shooters or other nut jobs who simply want to make their lives meaningful in their own sick way, they will do whatever is necessary to get their fifteen minutes of fame. Some will capitalize by asking for donations for fake causes.

Government Rumor Control

We are not prepared and we’ve never been fully prepared to deal with an onslaught of rumor control issues. Right now, I’m listening to the television with Florida counties discussing the reality of the coronavirus. It’s all perfectly ordered and controlled and they are doing a decent job of conveying information.

That’s not what I’m addressing. There may come a time in the near future where the deranged with a limited amount of video and audio equipment with easily accessible editing software will start pumping out videos or audios. There will come a time when people will start posting false stories claiming that reputable sources are saying that we will all get the virus.

If you ask the average rumor control person or those within law enforcement whether or not they have the personpower and the channels to monitor all social media outlets in real-time and have the knowledge and experience to understand false accounts, get the real story and react with good information, they will say that they do. They will say they have “a” capacity, but I’m guessing that they do not monitor all social media channels. They need to know how to get to the right people to confirm or deny endless rumors and to contact national social media administrators to remove the offending material.

Unless we come to grips with the massive number of malicious, self-serving and simply wrong pieces of information posted on social media and websites, we could have a recipe for disaster that could endanger people who madly flee perceived dangers that are simply exaggerated or untrue.

As to national and state emergency powers, see Just Security.

The Best Spokespersons

There are thousands of people in communications for government, utilities, and the private sector. Few have true emergency management experience. It’s time to locate the most experienced spokespeople, especially those with crisis backgrounds, and place them wherever they need to go. Like experienced reporters, savvy spokespeople can smell an untruth and have the knowledge to pause and verify. The accomplished public affairs officer understands that they must exert control over panicky situations and people.

We Need To Create Our Own Social Media

We need to create our own social media through audio and video posts. Our products need to be interesting and informative summations with photos and videos. We need citizens to come to us, not the malicious sites. We have the trust factor on our side but it’s worthless unless we take advantage of the tools at our disposal. Like the collection of the best spokespeople, we need to gather the best and brightest as to audio and video creation.

The Media Have Panicked In The Past

I wrote “Hurricane Sandy-The First Major Social Media Emergency?” as the storm was making its way up the east coast and “Bad, Mistaken or Malicious Information Via Social Media During Hurricane Sandy” documenting examples of social media misinformation (i.e., sharks swimming trough flooded streets).

There were additional stories documenting malicious use of Sandy-related social media since then including immediate appearances of false websites and Twitter/Facebook accounts asking for donations.

Report from Homeland Security On Social Media And Hurricane Sandy:

The Department of Homeland Security issued “Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy,” documenting the endless social media efforts that were both in-place and created to serve affected citizens. It states that “Sandy….marked a shift in the use of social media in disasters.”

“So many websites sprang up that it became difficult to find the specific website for the information, resources or reconnection one needed,” the report concludes. It also states that the use of social media during Sandy, “was so great that the benefit…became too great to ignore.”

The analysis makes for interesting reading and does a good job documenting what happened but solid conclusions and recommendations are scarce beyond the inevitable presumption that FEMA and the City of New York tried everything possible to get those affected to key websites providing the best sources of information.

There were simply too many organizations providing a confusing array of social media or website-related assistance (my conclusion). My principle concern was the thousands of out-of-control rumors, fake photos, fraudulent websites, and simply mistaken Tweets and Facebook posts. The report did not address whether there were adequate resources on hand to sort and respond.

Think I’m Exaggerating? Examples from Katrina:

Hurricane Katrina was a disaster of unimaginable proportions far outstripping the problems encountered by Sandy. Media and government response was equally problematic.

I spent one week at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) headquarters in D.C. immediately after the storm handling media inquiries and the questions were frantic, condemning and uniformly misguided.

It’s not my intention to reopen old wounds or to act as an apologist for FEMA but it was clear that media was looking from someone to blame and few were informed as to the support role of federal agencies.

Questions ranged from why FEMA was blocking the shipment of critical supplies of fuel oil into the port of New Orleans to why FEMA stole the transmission tower from a local sheriff and why FEMA was not doing a better job of being in charge of the disaster response (FEMA is not in charge of state emergencies-states are).

The endless condemning questions based on false rumors frightened me. It was clear that misinformation and the process of responding to misinformation was hampering operations. If social media was available at the time, I fear it would have been worse, much worse.

From the Washington Post:

“News of Pandemonium May Have Slowed Aid” from the Washington Post in October of 2005 is one example.

“Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, some local, state and federal officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims.

Claims of widespread looting, gunfire directed at helicopters and rescuers, homicides, and rapes, including those of “babies” at the Louisiana Superdome, frequently turned out to be overblown, if not completely untrue, officials now say.

The sensational accounts delayed rescue and evacuation efforts (emphasis added) already hampered by poor planning and a lack of coordination among local, state and federal agencies.

“Rumor control was a beast for us,” said Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard, who was stationed at the Superdome…. Everybody heard, nobody saw. Logic was out the window because the situation was illogical.”

From the New York Times:

From the New York Times in September of 2005: “Fear Exceeded Crime’s Reality in New Orleans”

“After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists – the core of the city’s economy – were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city’s two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.”

Conclusions:

Some refer to news coverage of Katrina as a media riot and many acknowledge that the reporting of unsubstantiated rumors hurt operations. Yes, the government did not perform up to expectations as to relief or communications.

But if social media was around during Katrina, what’s your guess as to making things better or worse?

Social media is groundbreaking communications that has the potential for immense empowerment and public good. But for those who believe that social cannot make things worse during emergencies, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn we need to discuss.

It’s time to immediately gear up and use local, state and national emergency management centers to access and analyze social media and web use during emergencies.

Every state and most cities and counties have fully functioning emergency command centers that are staffed by trained personnel.

We also need to use emergency operations centers in unaffected areas as social media rumor control teams. Train personnel on social media and website use during emergencies and let them analyze and access what is being said.

During massive emergencies, we can bring in hundreds of people if necessary and let them do what they do best, access and report.

Information can be channeled through one central location that distills and asks command staff if the rumors or reports are valid. They could provide the same service regarding requests for assistance through social media.

Yes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency “did” do this during Hurricane Sandy and “did” correct misinformation on its website.

I never got a definitive sense from the report that there were enough resources or people on hand to make sure that most social media and website reports were assessed and responded to. I would bet my last dollar that there weren’t.

Sources:

FEMA
LeonardSipes.Com
Washington Post
New York Times

Reprinted with permission from https://www.crimeinamerica.net.

Contact us at crimeinamerica@gmail.com or for media on deadline, use leonardsipes@gmail.com.

Leonard A. Sipes, Jr has thirty-five years of experience supervising public affairs for national and state criminal justice agencies. He is the Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse and the Former Director of Information Management for the National Crime Prevention Council. He has a Post Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and is the author of the book "Success With the Media". He can be reached via email at leonardsipes@gmail.com.


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