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“Information Trickles Up” Article On How Communication Flows In Disasters

September 19th, 2009 · 3 Comments

An interesting and comprehensive piece on the changing paradigm of disaster communications, “Information Trickles Up,” by Jerry Brito and Daniel M. Rothschild was recently posted on the Local Knowledge project site of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The authors write:

The traditional view of disaster communications holds that in an emergency, information and instructions must flow from an informed federal government, down to local communities and individuals. This view is dangerous and potentially harmful because it fails to distinguish sharing information from centrally controlling decision making. Traditional post-disaster communication centers on issuing orders rather than sharing information; it tells individuals what to do rather than empowering them to make their own decisions.

This experts-know-best mentality can be especially dangerous during and immediately after disasters. Because disasters are unplanned, attempting to conform them to normative prescriptions can create immense harm. Encouraging widespread dissemination of timely information, by contrast, does not make assumptions about what will happen in the future.

However, using a number of case studies from recent emergencies (including from Mercatus’ own extensive work in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina), the authors outline a new view of disaster communications. They conclude:

Information is only useful in context; knowing that the Earth revolves around the sun matters for the study of the cosmos, but it does not make much of a difference to our daily lives. During and after disasters, the context-the situation on the ground-is constantly changing, and information adjusts with it. Information is most useful when it is timely, accurate, and intelligible; that is, when it helps people make informed decisions about how to best deal with and recover from disasters. And that information is best produced and disseminated on a local level.

The traditional model of how information is produced and disseminated during and after disasters is based on old and disproven assumptions: that a central planner knows best and can disseminate orders to the masses, who must follow these directives. This model was churlish before the widespread democratization of information and communication technologies; today it is positively antiquated. As we have seen in the aftermath of disasters both natural and man-made, information travels in a variety of directions and through a variety of means. Attempts to control the spread of information will only be counterproductive, as people want information on which they can make informed decisions, not orders about what to do.

Because during and after a disaster everyone knows something — and nobody knows everything — the goal should be to aggregate and disseminate accurate information in a timely way. And the best way to do that is to respect that everyday citizens are producers and disseminators, and not just consumers, of all-critical information.

I recommend this article to anyone interested in disaster communications. Thanks to Jeannette Sutton’s Twitter feed for bringing this piece to my attention.

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Tags: Preparedness 2.0 · Preparedness Ideas

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Off Grid Survival // Sep 19, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Anyone interested in disaster communication should take a serious look at amateur (ham) radio.

    It is in my opinion the most reliable way of communicating during a disaster. If you have the right equipment you can communicate with anyone throughout the world with no power or worry about cell towers or phone lines going down

  • 2 EMS Blog Rounds Edition 18 // Sep 21, 2009 at 9:09 am

    [...] Solomon has an interesting take on the real way communication flows during a disaster. I think this highlights a huge gap that I see in our current Incident Command Structure (ICS) , [...]

  • 3 Someone You Know // Sep 22, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Mr. Solomon,

    Thanks for the link to a great article, and keep up the blogging.

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