Be informed and prepared in emergency

Lessons can be learned from Salem's water contamination alert

On May 30 the Oregon Office of Emergency Management attempted to assist the city of Salem in notifying their residents about a water consumption concern in their public utilities service area. The state relies on a federally developed system called IPAWS and in this case, something went awry when OEM’s carefully scripted message was dropped and a standard canned message was sent in its place. The result was, well, chaotic to say the least.

However, the most important takeaway from the event shouldn’t be about what DID happen; it should be about what DIDN’T. Many people contacted didn’t receive either of the two alerts. We need to find out why the message didn’t reach every phone before the next disaster or crisis event.

Yes, there will be a next one. I can say that with certainty. I cannot promise when, or how, or what. I can only promise that as today’s society becomes increasingly dependent upon governmental provided services and resources, the potential for small events to become big events continues to increase.

The only thing that can slow it down, is you.

Social media is both a blessing and a curse when managing an emergency. Yes, it can help get the correct message to lots of people in short time. However, it also allows misinformation, rumors and fearmongering to spread like wildfire. This presents the first opportunity for you to step up, and step in to help. Don’t get caught in debates on social media – it only amplifies the wrong information. Go to official sources for correct information you can trust. Amplify what they are sharing and point anyone who tries to argue with you to that source as well. City, county and state social media accounts are the best places to start. Followed by law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies. Also on the list are localized disaster response organizations like CERT and the American Red Cross. Helping those trusted resources share the correct information is something that didn’t happen enough in this event. They’re relying on you. Think before you post.

I saved my biggest concern for last. It isn’t that people panicked and went on water buying sprees. No, my biggest concern is that there was a NEED for people to panic in the first place! Why do we still have so many people who didn’t prepare? Water is the first and easiest component of a household emergency supply plan. Vast amounts of public information, warning and planning over the last 10 years have gone into telling our communities that you MUST take disaster resilience seriously. I have been teaching about our local operational realities, disaster risk factors and individual/household resiliency targets since 2006. It’s easy and costs far less than you think if you follow the right plan.

In a true disaster every household that doesn’t have to call for help greatly improves our emergency service’s ability to save lives. Being able to survive for three weeks on your own is your responsibility. Disaster response in your home begins with you. Initiating rescue and providing comfort in your neighborhood begins with you. Helping your schools, churches and community organizations survive and provide assistance to others begins with you. Are you ready for that responsibility?

Consider this event a disaster test. Did you pass? Take a CERT class. Get Informed. Make a Kit. Be Prepared.

Kimber Townsend, Program Coordinator

Polk County CERT

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