From the Mayor’s Office Hurricane Preparedness: What we learned from Bay County PIO’s Due to Hurricane Michael

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By Catherine Card, Public Information Manager, City of Destin

Hurricane Season is once again upon us. As we work diligently to inform the citizens we serve on hurricane preparedness the question you need to ask is “Are we communicating the same message that our local strategic partners are communicating before, during and after a storm?” All too often we get caught up with the internal pre-hurricane check lists, such as employee rosters, staff response post storm, etc. Although that is extremely important, how well are we communicating with our counterparts?

In a recent meeting with the Sheriff’s Office, Fire Department and County Emergency Management personnel, we discussed the “strategic plan” in the event a hurricane is headed in our direction. An important part of the discussion was how to provide the citizens and visitors we serve the most accurate, timely and consistent information amongst all the strategic partners.

As a public information officer (PIO), I am mainly responsible for creating and disseminating communication in a timely manner between our organization, the public and the news media. Prior to a hurricane having the potential to impact your area, have you been in communication with your fellow PIO’s? Is there a new PIO that you have not met? Do you know what their organization’s messaging will be before, during and after a hurricane? How will you contact them if the power is out and all lines of communication are down and you need to share information? Have you developed other ways to communicate such as a private Facebook group? Can you share the same technology to streamline information on a consistent basis from the lead agency in charge?

In June, my fellow Okaloosa County PIO’s from public safety, county and municipal governments, met with our counterparts from Bay County to discuss – Hurricane Michael. Learning from their valuable experiences, what I personally took away was the following:
Prior to a hurricane, inform citizens precisely where they need to go to obtain official statements, storm updates, and other critical information. Strategic partners should pre-designate and format information releases to facilitate consistency among the partners. Community leaders should strive for consistency so that varied entities are speaking with “one voice.” This helps ensure the public receives the same information from its various elected officials and governments.

Have contingency plans in place for catastrophic utility service failures, such as internet, cellular phone and land line phone “service failures.” Be creative, such as private and public radio stations, HAM radio operators, and even banner planes flying with emergency information.

Monitor and maintain social media channels continuously and establish a citizen hotline. Depending on the level of utility service failures, you may want to turn off social media platform instant messaging connected to the internet. This may help prevent curious overseas people from contacting you that have no critical need of information. If not monitored 24/7, some may consider this a means of communication and reporting for an emergency that goes unnoticed or unread for a period of time.