Study: Emergency Managers Not Adequately Using Internet for Public Outreach

Despite post-Hurricane Katrina calls for improved communication, state emergency management agencies across the United States have been slow to adopt Internet-based resources to reach the public during emergencies, a new University of Kansas study concludes.

According to "Untapped Potential: Evaluating State Emergency Management Web Sites 2008," state emergency management agency Web sites appear to place greater emphasis on reaching first responders than they do citizens of their state or the news outlets. The study urges state emergency planners to recognize that Internet and emerging social media are important public outreach tools.

Funded by KU’s Transportation Research Institute, the study analyzed 51 state emergency management agency Web sites (including the District of Columbia) and results of an online survey of state public information officers. The report outlined 13 findings of the research and made six recommendations to the nation’s emergency managers.

"I hope this report will spark serious discussions nationwide about the role of Internet communication before, during and following crisis situations," said David W. Guth, associate professor of journalism, who wrote the study. "The purpose of this research is not so much to criticize state EMA officials as it is to shed light upon practices that can help them fulfill the public safety mission to which they have dedicated themselves."

Local, state and federal emergency managers came under intense criticism for their flawed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A February 2006 White House report found a need to "develop an integrated public communications plan to better inform, guide and reassure the American public before, during and after a catastrophe." In March 2006, a U.S. House of Representatives select bipartisan committee investigation of the Katrina response said, "The preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina show we are still an analog government in a digital age. We must recognize that we are woefully incapable of storing, moving, and accessing information -- especially in times of crisis."

Although 80 percent of online survey respondents indicated that residents of their state were the primary audiences of emergency management agency Web sites, the most-frequently found feature on their Web sites was first responder/emergency manager training information. According to Untapped Potential, less than half of the Web sites provided the identity of the agency’s public information officer and his/her direct telephone number or direct e-mail address.

The report said Web site designers appear to have more influence on their content than do the emergency managers who supervise them. While survey respondents said they see moderate value in using the Internet during emergencies, they also said they do not see the Internet as the equal to more traditional communications media, such as radio and television.

"The implications of these and other findings of this study are that our nation’s emergency managers do not fully appreciate the potential of the Internet and emerging social media," Guth said. "In an era when mass communications channels are becoming more and more diffused with passage of time, the need to reach the public through media they prefer will continue to play a vital role in the future."

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