Communication during disasters
Barbara Ryan was working as the Communications Manager at the Toowoomba City Council in 2002, when summer bush fires destroyed five homes and forced the evacuation of more than 500 people.
In her role with the Council, Barbara and a colleague moved to a Disaster Coordination Centre, established following the activation of the Council’s Local Disaster Management Plan (LDMP).
“For the next three days Heather Smith and I wrote 57 media releases and spoke proactively to radio stations and other local media to keep them informed of the emerging situation.
“The way we reacted and the information we provided over the three days was purely instinctive, but it seemed to go very well.”
A de-brief with local media following the event confirmed the duo had provided relevant information in a timely fashion.
Despite their success, the event sparked more questions than answers for Barbara, who is currently completing a PhD examining how communities search for information during a disaster.
“So far I have interviewed people in St George, who were affected by floods in March 2010, as well as residents in Airlie Beach who were living in the actual disaster area when Cyclone Ului hit.
“I also travelled to Gerogery, near Albury in New South Wales, where I spoke to people who were impacted by bush fires in December 2009.”
Interviews have also been scheduled with Toowoomba residents to find out how they accessed information during the January 2011 floods.
“I have interviewed 37 people so far and, of those people, only person has got onto Facebook to find out information about an emerging disaster.
“Given this anecdotal evidence would suggest that social media is not used very well in a disaster by people living in the actual disaster area. People tend to stick to finding out information from friends, families, agencies and the radio.”
Despite this theory, Barbara says there is still a role for social media during a disaster.
“The Queensland Police Facebook page went from having 17,000 fans to 170,000 fans in the three days from the Toowoomba / Grantham floods to the Brisbane floods.”
As Foundation Chair of Emergency Media and Public Affairs and Public Information Co-coordinator of the Toowoomba Disaster Management Group, Barbara is developing a reputation as an expert in her chosen field.
“Surprisingly there has been very little research completed in disaster communication and research that has been completed is predominantly coming out of the United States.”
Given this Barbara hopes her research will provide factual data on information requirements during emergency events.
“The majority of information during disasters comes from agencies and they work totally on gut instinct – they don’t know how much information people actually want or need.”