Sometimes, it’s pretty easy to get the media to cover your emergency. After all, disasters sit atop the old ‘inverted pyramid’ or whatever other scale you use you measure newsworthiness. But what happens when there’s an emergency that’s a little harder to make clear, a little more wide-spread, a little slower and a little less ‘big bang/fire/accident’?
As reported in today’s Age, a research report into the 2009 Victorian heatwave that preceded Black Saturday put together by five different universities will be released tomorrow. It will no-doubt make for interesting reading. The report, commissioned by the federal National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, seems to indicate the heatwaves aren’t high on the media agenda.
“Lead author Jim Reeves says heatwaves do not have the same impact in the media as bushfires, cyclones or floods.”
The report apparently goes on to talk about the failures of the electricity grid and totes the much-lauded statistic: 374 people died from the heatwave, while 174 died from the Black Saturday fires. Here in Victoria, we live in one of the most bushfire-prone places in the world, but I think that mega-bushfires are still going to be more rare than days of intense heat, though there’s clearly a link.
Heat affects everyone, especially the elderly, infirm, young, disadvantaged and homeless. Heatwaves in places like northern India and Europe have fanned the frenzied call for climate change mitigation initiatives. The recent Russian heatwave reportedly killed up to 11,000 people; the recent Japanese heatwave killed 140 and saw 54,000 people rushed into hospitals. The AccuWeather blog notes that 2010 was a record year for heat. One day in September, it was so hot in Southern California the weatherperson’s thermometer broke.
Heatwaves will ”test the resilience of the expanding metropolitan areas unless forewarning and other adaptation strategies are successful.”
What does this mean for emergency communicators? It means we need a strong network of cross-agency personnel to coordinate messaging together. It means we need to educate ourselves, the media and the community about heatwaves, their impacts, and the actions we need people to take. I think there’s huge scope to use social media to promote warnings and messages, check in on people and create a registration system for vulnerable populations. I know DHS here in Victoria have used this type of risk-register system in a traditional way, but there’s much more work to be done as part of the Heatwave Action Plan, especially on the awareness and communication fronts. I’d be interested in hearing from people who have developed strategies or models for how we engage with the media and the community during heatwaves because it’s something all emergency communicators are going to need to understand sooner rather than later.