WASHINGTON: With the official start of this year's hurricane season, June 1, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said it intends to announce within the next two weeks that the forthcoming use of "rapidly deployable" public affairs officials to monitor weather-related and other crises as they occur.
The agency will also unveil extensive plans to “embed” members of the media in various crisis-response activities.
Noting the ad-hoc nature of DHS communications during Hurricane Katrina last year, Brian Besanceney, DHS assistant secretary for public affairs, said the DHS is not expanding the number of public affairs people but rather training them to better understand "crisis management" and the responsibilities of all the various DHS departments.
Officially formed in November 2002, the Department of Homeland Security remains something of a startup organization, combining a number of government agencies, including FEMA, the US Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and the Transportation Safety Agency (TSA) – all of which may be involved in some way in assisting in disaster response, depending on the crisis.
"We don't want people exchanging business cards for the first time after the thing has happened," Besanceney said, referring to the need for better interdepartmental communications. But that was essentially what happened with Katrina, he said.
Rather than rely on state and local officials for information, new federal-level "situational awareness" teams, including public affairs officials, will be on the scene with first responders; they will use video cameras, satellite phones, and other equipment to report to DHS national and field headquarters on breaking news.
"Last year we put out a lot of black-and-white information about the size and scope of the federal effort, and all people saw on television were the images of the Superdome, the Convention Center or people standing on rooftops," said Besanceney. “The size and scope of the response was absolutely enormous, but the numbers came across as being very dry and stale.”
Video, maps, charts, and graphs, and other multimedia information should help the agency convey its activities more effectively. If a bridge has been destroyed, for example, hampering rescue efforts in a certain area, video footage taken of that bridge could help public affairs officials convey to the media and the public at large the obstacle it presents to recovery operations.
For the “embed”-type program, media members wouldn’t just be assigned to a particular unit and be stuck with it, but instead be given something of a choice: a Coast Guard helicopter, a FEMA search-and-rescue team, or TSA airlift operation. FEMA and the Coast Guard have, in the past, done “ride alongs” and similar activities with the media, but this would be a DHS-wide program, and not necessarily one in which media participants must always be in the presence of a public affairs officer.
Apart from the forthcoming announcement by the DHS on its communications policies, public affairs officials at a number of organizations said they had various hurricane-safety campaigns that were also tied in with the official start of the hurricane season.
Meteorologist Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, said that the May 22 release of his organization’s annual forecast on hurricanes in the Atlantic was likely to garner a lot of media attention. That report coincides with the start of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hurricane Preparedness Week, and follows a recently-completed, five-city tour of a hurricane tracking aircraft geared towards school kids and local media outlets.
While responding to disasters like hurricanes involves organizations from the federal, state, and local levels, educating the public about hurricane preparation is mainly a local effort, given the unique requirements of every area potentially affected by a natural disaster. American Red Cross spokesperson Tara Lynch said her organization’s educational effort might really be considered 800 or so separate campaigns in all the places in the country that might be affected by a hurricane because evacuation routes are unique to every area, for instance, as well as the locations of shelters.
While public affairs professionals say the start of hurricane season may be a good hook for educational campaigns, their efforts continue year round. American Chief Petty Officer Veronica Bandrowsky, assistant public affairs officer for the US Coast Guard’s Eight District, based in New Orleans, said the Coast Guard’s efforts to educate people about preparing for hurricanes are essentially geared to be repetitive, to remind them make preparation their own responsibility.
“A lot of it is just telling people what to do to be safe, to make their own plans,” Bandrowsky said. “We advise people that when a storm comes, our assets are not going to be there until after that storm passes, because we cannot endanger our own people.”