Emergency Management

Technology critical to Pierce County’s earthquake response
Posted By Sheri Badger on Mar 9th, 2001 at 3:05 AM

So there you are … under your desk, under a table or in a doorway, waiting for the shaking to stop. You’ve just experienced an earthquake and after checking on friends, co-workers and family members you’ll have an urgent need to find out what has happened. Nowadays, we don’t wait for the five o’clock news, we head directly to the Internet (that is if you tied your computer down like we’ve been suggesting for the past several years!). Noting this trend in other local disasters, most notably the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, Pierce County Emergency Management and Information Services began to develop a crisis communications website with the goal of getting accurate, consistent information out to the citizens of our county. Within half an hour of the earthquake, Pierce County’s Crisis Communications website was up and running. One week later, we had 3,800 unique visitors, totaling more than 300,000 hits. The website provided a variety of valuable and timely information including press releases (featuring damage updates and number of injuries), school closures, service disruptions, photos, employee information, interactive maps, etc. As the event moved from response to recovery, the site also featured on-line damage assessment forms and FEMA registration numbers. Local and nationwide media monitored our site for current information, as did thousands of citizens. One special feature of the Crisis Communications website is a comment/question section. Public information staff in the Emergency Operation Center monitored the feedback and responded throughout the event. As an example, we received one e-mail from a concerned woman in North Carolina who couldn’t reach her grandmother in Tacoma by phone. A personal call was made to assure her that Tacoma and Pierce County came through the quake quite well and only minor injuries were reported throughout the county. The woman nearly broke into tears of joy, so thrilled that someone called her personally to say things were going to be okay. That story repeated itself many times throughout the event – parents checking on local students, east coast relatives checking on their family members living in Pierce County, the list goes on. It is a unique twist – innovations in technology allowed us to make the most meaningful connection, a personal phone call. The website was critical in keeping our citizens informed, the media and our regional partners. The earthquake took place during business hours, which gave workers limited access to television and radio. Representatives from our cities and towns, school districts, and local businesses used the website to keep their workers informed throughout the event – where the damage was located, what roads were closed, and if their kids would be attending school the next day. Pierce County’s Crisis Communications website was critical, but only part of Pierce County’s overall response. Pierce County Director of Emergency Management Steve Bailey summed up the regional response, “Pierce County and our partners in the cities and towns have spent a great deal of time and effort planning and exercising for this kind of emergency. That effort paid off following the Feb. 28 earthquake. Public safety agencies throughout the county immediately activated plans and procedures, responding to emergencies and providing rapid damage assessment reports. This enabled us to quickly understand the size and scope of the disaster and provide necessary resources and support. The response and recovery effort has been very positive and all the government agencies involved deserve thanks for a job well done.”