This commentary was co-authored by Talia Smith, a senior management analyst with the San Rafael Public Works Department, and Luke Fretwell, CEO of ProudCity. It first appeared in Techwire’s sister publication Governing.
In recent years, communities in California have become all too familiar with the realities of large-scale disaster response. The 2017 Sonoma County fire was for one year the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. The next fall, the Camp Fire shattered that record, leveling 19,000 structures in the Butte County and Paradise communities. Nearly 130 deaths were attributed to those fires.
We had the opportunity to serve in digital-response capacities during both the Sonoma and Butte County fires. In those disasters, our niche was supporting the building of SonomaCountyRecovers.org and ButteCountyRecovers.org. We learned lessons that would apply no matter what kind of potential disaster a jurisdiction faces, whether fires, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes or non-weather-related emergencies.
Here’s what our experience taught us: While most public safety operations in an emergency operations center (EOC) are guided by time-tested principles, digital response before, during and after a disaster is surprisingly uncharted territory.
What will your city’s website look like when 5,000 homes have been destroyed? What maps will you have, and do you have the in-house expertise to produce them? Which Twitter account will be lead? Will you launch a recovery website, and what will it be called? How will you maintain consistency in information disseminated across jurisdictions?
While we’re not emergency management experts, here are some best practices we recommend agencies consider to optimize their digital response:
Establish a single destination: Fires and other natural disasters are not limited to jurisdictional boundaries, and neither should information be. “Incorporated” and “unincorporated” are not in the common vernacular of most residents.
Best practice is to create a single cross-jurisdictional destination for information. Residents should not have to comb through the city’s website, the county’s website, the sheriff’s website, and the police department’s Twitter account to find out when they can re-enter their neighborhoods. Another tip: a social media “wall” feature on your recovery website that displays all social media accounts allows non-social-media-savvy residents to see many posts in one place.
Build and brand now: You should not wait for the urgency (and added anxiety) of a disaster to build a recovery website or communications plan. Consider these now and have them ready to deploy in the event of a disaster:
• Branding (Butte, Sonoma and Marin counties all used the “Recovers” name).
• Domain (keep the URL simple and part of either an official government domain or a .org).
• Governance, especially when information needs the stamp of approval from more than one jurisdiction. If your jurisdiction has multiple social media accounts, figure out which one will be the central information resource in a disaster.
Think mobile first: While typical traffic for government websites is 50 percent mobile (phones or tablets), we’ve seen this spike to 80 percent during a disaster. As Rebecca Woodbury, San Rafael’s director of digital service, noted while serving on mutual aid in Santa Rosa, “No one ran out of their house in the middle of the night with their desktop in their arms.”
Default to text: Text within an image may be a powerful way to communicate, but text displayed that way is not readable for those with visual impairments relying on a screen reader. Neither is a scanned PDF. It’s best to avoid PDFs altogether and just post in text. Furthermore, PDFs, video and other forms of website embeds cause bandwidth issues; remember that networks and Wi-Fi are likely to be slower during an emergency.
Update often, particularly in the beginning: If your agency isn’t able to stand up a recovery website quickly and provide timely updates on it, the public will find alternative sources for information. Days after the Sonoma County fires and before the launch of the official recovery website, an information-filled community website popped up and quickly eclipsed the slow-to-update government sites. Officials had no control over the content of the community site, and many constituents did not even realize it was not managed by a government agency.
Stay human: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the demands of disaster response, especially in the EOC environment. Yet it’s critical to remember that you are serving those who may have just lost their homes or loved ones. They need all the information they can get, and they need it as quickly as possible, whether it’s delivered digitally, in written form or in person. A human reminder that their government is there for them is a powerful civic gesture in the start of a long road of recovery and rebuilding.