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Local Emergency Management: The Dog That

Needs to Bark
Scott E. Robinson
and
Joseph Reed
Bush School of Government and Public Service
Texas A&M University

DRAFT: Please do not quote without permission


April 14, 2010

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1 Introduction
Local emergency management organizations (LEMOs) provide a wide variety
of services to their communities - many relatively unknown to the people they
serve.1 The unheralded nature of LEMO’s work can have a significant nega-
tive impact on these organizations. A LEMO that operates quietly beneath
the radar of most local residents is an organization that will likely find it
difficult to justify continued funding (particularly in the absence of a recent,
memorable disaster) or to disseminate information to the public about issues
ranging from preparedness activities to evacuations. In this environment, it
is essential for LEMOs to develop a strategy to raise awareness about their
activities within the community. Doing so calls for a clear understanding of
the dynamics of media coverage of emergency management.
This article presents some research into media reports of emergency man-
agement. Section 2 provides a brief introduction to the specific emergency
management activity studied, evacuation hosting, and some theoretical ex-
pectations about media coverage of emergency management activities. Sec-
tion 3 describes the data collection procedure we used and the media reported
networks found in two similar communities. Finally, section 4 provides some
recommendations based on the research findings for how LEMOs (and, po-
tentially, other local public service organizations) can receive attention from
the media.

2 Evacuation Hosting and Local Emergency


Management
LEMOs may find themselves involved in a wide variety of activities. This ar-
ticle focuses on one of these activities: evacuation hosting. In this section, we
will discuss the specific and often ignored complications of hosting evacuees
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under
Grant No. CMMI-0927576. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations
expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views
of the National Science Foundation. We would also like to thank Warren Eller, Melanie
Gall, and Brian Gerber for their assistance with this project. This article is based on
material originally presented at the 2010 Texas ASPA Annual Meeting in San Marcos, TX
- February 12, 2010. The authors would like to thank the participants in the seminar for
their suggestions and comments

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who have fled a disaster in some other community (e.g. a hurricane, flood, or
forest fire). We will pay particular attention to the necessity of collaboration
in providing services to hosted evacuees . We follow with a discussion of a
common finding in social network research that can help us anticipate what
we should see in these media-reported networks.

2.1 The Diverse Needs of Evacuees


There is considerable attention to problems associated with evacuating pop-
ulations (Perry & Greene 1981, Perry & Lindell 1991) - particularly from
the engineering perspective (Wolshon, Urbina, Wilmot, Levitan et al. 2005).
However, we know little about the corresponding problem of how to host
evacuees. If a large number of people leave a Gulf Coast community in an-
ticipation of a hurricane, we have developed a variety of techniques (some
based on engineering principles and some based on effective emergency man-
agement practice) to get the residents out of harm’s way. However, when
they arrive at the host location we have little information on how best to
organize services for these displaced residents.
We are just beginning to come to grips with the diverse array of needs
of hosted evacuees. Many think that sheltering is a simple operation - often
delegated to the American Red Cross. Once one has a significant number
of evacuees enter one’s community, though, the complexity of their needs
become clear. One can not simply hand evacuees a cot and assume they will
take care of themselves. Evacuees may need medical attention, may arrive
without prescriptions for the medicines they need (or, at times, falsely claim
they need), or may need complicated medical support services like dialysis.
The evacuees will also need food service. This seems simple until you realize
you may need to serve thousands of meals at a site that is unaccustomed to
sustaining such meal service. Furthermore, you need to entertain evacuees
- particularly children - and should allow the evacuees to travel to shopping
facilities for needs like clothes and other necessities. Such entertainment and
support activities call for coordination of additional transportation activities.
The complexity of such needs often call for the support of LEMOs along
with a variety of other providers of “wrap-around” services. Local public
health officials will need to help coordinate meeting special medical needs,
local voluntary and religious organizations often come to help with feeding
and shelter administration, local law enforcement and public transportation
agencies may come to provide assistance in evacuee transportation. All in

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all, it takes a village to host evacuees.

2.2 Power Laws and Network Activity


While the literature on social networks is long-standing and vast, we would
like to emphasize a key expectation. The number of connections between
actors within a social network is often expected to follow what is called
the Pareto Principle. The Pareto Principle has a variety of applications.
For example, the distribution of wealth in societies (Buchanan 2001). For
purposes of social networks, we need to think in terms of the distribution of
shared activities. In this context, the Pareto Principle implies that 20% of the
actors within a network will likely be part of 80% of the network connections.
We should expect to see highly centralized organizaitonal networks. A small
number of actors will participate in a vast majority of the partnerships. In
the case of media attention, a small number of actors will accrue a large
majority of the media mentions. In the next section, we will look at both.

3 Media Reported Networks in Evacuation


Hosting
To study the potential centralization of evacuation hosting networks (as re-
ported in the media), we compared media accounts from two communities.
Our goal was to identify two communities that have participated in signif-
icant evacuation hosting activities in the past decade that were similar in
terms of size. We chose moderately sized communities that were along the
evacuation paths flowing away from the Gulf Coast. Specifically, we are com-
paring the media reported networks in Brazos County, TX (which includes
the Bryan/College Station area) and Shreveport, LA.
We utilized the Westlaw database to collect data on the media reports
of relationships between organizations involved in evacuations. We read
through news articles and newswires identifying relevant government agen-
cies or non-government organizations. We used search terms including the
name of the city, county, state, and a term to locate all articles related to
evacuation (“Evac!”) and the year of publication. Specifically, we evalu-
ated articles from 2000-2010 to see whether they actually dealt with issues of
evacuation and evacuation hosting in our target communities. After deter-
mining the relevance of an article to the topic, we created a list identifying

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Organization Number of Media Mentions
Texas A&M University 121
Bryan High School 34
El Dorado Chemical Company 28
TAMU Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center 27
Texas Council on Environmental Quality 24
Tulane University 15
All Others (n=83) ≤ 10

Table 1: Number of Media Mentions by Organization in Brazos County

each organization that was involved in the evacuation and evacuation host-
ing process. Articles that mentioned more than one organization involved
in an evacuation were then taken and placed into another list that is named
“co-mentioned organizations.” After all the data was compiled into their
respective lists, we tabulated the number of organizations mentioned in the
media and with whom they were connected.

3.1 The Media Reported Network for Brazos County,


TX
Our first community is Brazos County, TX. Brazos County includes the cities
of College Station and Bryan. Also included in this county is Texas A&M
University - a large, public university that enrolls almost 50,000 students.
This area sits inland from the Gulf Coast of Texas along a major evacuation
route from parts of East Texas including Houston. Over the past decade,
the area has served as a host community for a variety of hurricanes including
Katrina, Rita, and Ike. Table 1 illustrates the number of mentions of various
organizations within the community in articles pertaining to evacuations.

The distribution of media mentions makes clear that there is a centralized


network. The prominent university is the most frequently mentioned orga-
nization by a wide margin. Following the prominent university are a high
school and another university that transferred many students. The centrality
of the university would be all the more remarkable if we combined the gen-
eral university mentions with mentions of a particular unit of the university -

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Figure 1: Brazos County Network

the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. The final two often-mentioned
organizations were involved in a local evacuation brought on by a chemical
release.
To illustrate the degree of centralization, Figure 1 visualizes the degree of
media reported connections between these organizations. This figure drives
home the point that the most often mentioned organization plays a dominant
role in the media reported network.

3.2 The Media Reported Network for Shreveport, LA


Shreveport, LA is also an inland community within a state that has experi-
enced significant evacuation activities. Similar in size to the Brazos County
area, Shreveport serves as a comparison case. Shreveport does not contain
a single organization that dominates the economy and culture as is the case
with Texas A&M University in Brazos County. There is less reason to expect
centralized media coverage. Overall, the media reports in Shreveport, LA
mentioned approximately the same number of organizations (96 here to the
89 in the Brazos County case). There is still evidence of strong centralization
in the media reports. Table 2 reports the media mentions of organizations

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Organization Number of Media Mentions
FEMA 83
Shreveport Charity Hospital 35
Louisiana State University 33
Louisiana National Guard 25
US Department of Homeland Security 24
Louisiana Health Science Center 23
American Red Cross 16
All Others (n=89) ≤ 11

Table 2: Number of Media Mentions by Organization in Shreveport

in the Shreveport media analysis.

Again we see a centralized network with a handful of organizations getting


the lion’s share of mentions. This time it is national and state level actors
that have caught the attention of the media. The network is dominated by
FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, and the American Red Cross
followed by state agencies including a large state university (LSU), the state
unit of the National Guard, and a state health center. Figure 2 provides a
visualization of how centralized the network of media reports is.

4 Conclusions and Recommendations


We don’t believe that LEMOs are not active players in providing services
to evacuees hosted within the community. We have conducted a series of
interviews with representatives of these organizations and are convinced that
successful hosting activities depend critically on the effort and expertise of
these local players. This leaves two important questions. Why are LEMOs
invisible to the media covering these activities? What can the LEMOs do to
become visible to these media outlets?
We believe the key to answering both questions is in the centralized nature
of the media reports and who it is that actually captures media attention.

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Figure 2: Shreveport Network

4.1 Recommendation #1: Borrowing Familiarity


The actors that dominate the media reported networks are familiar organiza-
tions to both the general public and the journalists themselves. This creates
a vicious cycle. Media accounts focus on known organizations. The less-well
known organizations continue to be unknown while the already known orga-
nizations become even more prominent. It is difficult to break this cycle of
attention.
Instead of breaking the cycle, local emergency managers should take ad-
vantage of these networks. Instead of lamenting the prominence of local
organizations, local emergency managers need to partner with these promi-
nent organizations. For example, the Brazos County Office of Emergency
Management has created a station for a university representative within the
EOC. This is full time office space (though not occupied full time) rather
than an invitation to participate only while the EOC is active. Integration
of the prominent organization places the LEMOs closer to the organizations
that the media is likely to cover. They hope that the integration of university
officials will bring local government offices closer to the prominent organiza-
tion, increase their prominence and improve their effectiveness in preparing
for and responding to emergencies.

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4.2 Recommendation #2: Engagement
Particularly in emergencies, journalists are under time pressures. It should
be no surprise that they are likely to turn to contacts they already have.
Understanding the time pressures of journalism is key to local emergency
managers breaking the vicious cycle of invisibility. LEMOs should engage
these journalists ahead of time. This can be accomplished in two ways.
First, it is essential that local emergency managers meet with local jour-
nalists frequently between emergencies. During an emergency, the local emer-
gency manager does not have time to talk to journalists and the journalists
do not have time to dig for information. If the local emergency management
office has a well-established relationship then they will be able to feed ac-
curate information to the journalists smoothly. The journalists will already
have some of the basic information (the “who” and the “why” of many of
the local emergency management activities) and only need to supplement the
basic information with event specific news.
Second, the LEMO can make it easier for journalists to cover their ac-
tivities. One way to do this is to have designated media representatives.
Journalists will know to turn to the designated contact person and will build
a relationship during the non-emergency times. However, this is an expen-
sive strategy for smaller organizations that may not have an entire FTE to
spare for these activities. A less-costly alternative is to work with journal-
ists to develop efficient forms for emergency information (Lindell, Prater,
and Perry 2007). Journalists working under time pressures (including dur-
ing emergency situations) work from article templates. They have the basic
format for their articles already written and they fill in the blanks with the
specific information of events. You can work with these journalists ahead of
time to identify the information they will need. This reduces the information
that the journalist won’t (or won’t know how to ) use and speeds coverage of
LEMOs. If you can focus on the key information the journalists need, they
are more likely to use your information (and identify you) and to get that
information right. It is when you carpet bomb the media with information
that you increase the likelihood that the media will get something - maybe
something vital - wrong.

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References
Buchanan, M. 2001. “Wealth Happens.” Harvard Business Review 80:49–54.

Lindell, MK, C Prater & RW Perry. 2007. Introduction to Emergency Man-


agement. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Perry, RW & MK Lindell. 1991. “The Effects of Ethnicity on Evacua-


tion Decision-Making.” International Journals of Mass Emergencies and
Disasters 9:47–68.

Perry, RW, MK Lindell & MR Greene. 1981. ”Evacuation experiences and


the evacuation planning process”. In Evacuation Planning in Emergency
Management, ed. MK Lindell Perry RW & MR Greene. Lexington Books
pp. 121–150.

Wolshon, B., E. Urbina, C. Wilmot, M. Levitan et al. 2005. “Review of Poli-


cies and Practices for Hurricane Evacuation. I: Transportation Planning,
Preparedness, and Response.” Natural Hazards Review 6:129.

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