Public Health Preparedness in the Age of Social Media

This month is National Preparedness Month.  Follow APHL on our blog, Twitter and Facebook for preparedness information and discussions all month!

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By Kara MacKeil, Associate Specialist, Public Health Preparedness and Response, APHL

One of my earliest childhood memories is of being woken up during nap-time at daycare.  I was about four, and my parents were bringing me home early because a hurricane was approaching the coast.  While I can’t remember now which storm it was (though Hurricane Bob is the most likely), I do remember that my parents kept the radio on for the entire drive home, paying meticulously close attention to the constant stream of weather updates. Even before the age of the smartphone, it was crucial to know what was happening.

That need for timely and accurate information will never change but technology has come a long way since 1991, and thanks to social media we have many more tools available to us to plan for and respond to emergencies.  For laboratories, this means new ways to expand on their Continuity of Operations Plans (COOP) to keep employees and the public safe and well-informed.

Public Health Preparedness in the Age of Social Media | www.aphlblog.org

To share information, many organizations are leveraging existing social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.  You might think these services are for bored teens sharing pictures of their lunch, but a quick Facebook search yields hundreds of emergency management groups, and Twitter has even more.  Both platforms are quick and easy ways to push out information such as the status of the local drinking water or whether or not a public health laboratory is diverting samples to other laboratories due to storm damage.  It’s also an opportunity to ask for assistance during emergencies and share information on outbreaks….just search for Cyclospora and you’ll find current news on the number of cases and possible source. I’m far more likely to hear about a major news story from Twitter than from the local television news station, and I know I’m not alone there.

Like most social media sites, these services aren’t reliant on any specific computer and messages can be sent by any laboratory employee with the correct password, making it even easier to communicate.  I admit some of this could be accomplished through text messages as well, but social media messages have a tendency to go viral (meaning people share the messages to different groups of people) that texts can’t match.  When the message concerns issues such as contaminated food or water, the more people that see the information, the better.  Laboratory employees could also use these services to check in when phone lines are tied up, letting supervisors know what their personnel capabilities are in real-time.

There are also a number of mobiles applications (apps) on the market that can assist in planning for and responding to disasters.  The Red Cross is one of the best-known in the business, with a suite of apps that instruct users on how to prepare their homes and workplaces for disasters like tornados, wildfires, and hurricanes. The apps also push out location-specific updates on shelters, weather updates, and other essential information.  Louisiana’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has another great group of apps called Get a Game Plan, which guides users through making readiness plans for different situations and provides Louisiana-specific information on evacuation zones and shelters, weather alerts, and maps.  Both are accessible from the web for those without smartphones. While these apps are primarily targeted towards families and individuals, it would be relatively easy for a laboratory to include use of these apps in their COOP as a reference point for when certain steps should be taken.  For example, the decision to evacuate or call in extra personnel could take up-to-date information from one of these apps into account.

Good responses to emergencies also require good planning beforehand.  Most laboratories have excellent disaster-response plans in their COOPs, but even the best COOP will be clotheslined if employees aren’t prepared at home.  In addition to the apps above, FEMA’s Ready.gov is a great resource for planning personal disaster readiness, and I’d advise everyone to take a look.  You might be surprised when you realize just how much stuff you’d need to keep your family (and your pets!) safe and comfortable for a few days of shelter-in-place.  We all know how critical public health laboratories are.  In the interests of keeping your laboratory functioning in a disaster, it might be a good idea to have a home-readiness information session at work to be sure that employees are fully equipped to deal with emergencies and keep essential services running.

Of course, no app will protect you if you’re stranded without supplies.  Easy ways to make contact are no substitute for having a readiness kit and a plan in place, and everyone should make the time to ensure they’ll be ready if disaster strikes.  I bet my parents would have loved to have some of these tools back in 1991!

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