GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/Tapping Web power in emergencies
Cities need to coordinate and control information very closely.
Like most communities, Seattle has a disaster response plan that is updated and revised regularly. Several years ago, the city integrated its Web site with its emergency communications plan. As a result, the city provides residents and city employees with easy access to response and recovery information.
Recently, Seattle experienced several events that required city officials to use their disaster response plan. The city was the site of the World Trade Organization demonstrations in November 1999 and several smaller protests in 2000. In February, an earthquake damaged businesses, homes and government buildings. In each event, the city used its Web site as part of the disaster response, and it has learned many lessons that have helped refine its emergency online practices.
Staff members who update the Web site should be located in a central location with other emergency respondents. Whenever Seattle’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is activated, city government communications are controlled through a centrally managed team of staff from all departments. A few staff members responsible for the Web site are part of that group and have a computer in the EOC. The Web team’s presence in the EOC provides immediate access to information from key departments such as Police and Transportation.
The Web site design should include a hierarchy for information. Three features of Seattle’s Web site are particularly suitable for use in emergencies: a press release database, space on the home page for current news, and the use of “portal pages” to organize site content and links on a topical basis. The press release database and the news space on the home page are used regularly to post releases issued by all city departments; during emergency responses, only those releases issued by the EOC are posted. The portal pages organize a large amount of information and make it easily accessible.
Staff members should follow a protocol for posting information to the Web site. During emergencies, the city needs to coordinate and control information very closely. A protocol that describes who can write content and post it on the Web is essential for maintaining that control. Seattle’s plan requires that all emergency information be coordinated through the EOC and approved by the communications team leader before being posted to the Web.
Staff members should plan and practice their roles in emergencies. Nothing is more valuable than practice. In addition to responding to several real emergencies, Seattle conducts training exercises. Staff take turns participating so they know what their roles are and how things work in emergencies.
A contact list of key personnel should be posted in a central location. The city’s Web team and a few departmental Webmasters are on a list that includes home and office phone numbers. In the early stages of disaster response, several members of the Web team automatically report to the EOC, and they use the list to call more support if needed. Seattle also established an e-mail group for staff to communicate with each other and to let departments know how to get emergency information posted on the Web.
Seattle was lucky that all its major communications systems continued to function through February’s earthquake; however, the city does not want to rely on luck. Therefore, the city is pursuing partnerships with other local governments to host emergency Web sites for each other. Staff hope the back-up sites would never need to be used, but the city has learned that preparation and practice are essential to smooth response in any type of emergency situation.
The author is the director of interactive media for Seattle.