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The Politics of False Alarms and Evacuation Decisions

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By Allison G. S. Knox
Contributor, EDM Digest

Deciding when to evacuate an area because of an impending major disaster -- like a major hurricane, wildfire or major snowstorm -- is a difficult decision for any politician or emergency manager. Not only does it become logistically complicated to make sure that individuals have successfully left a given location, but it also becomes a public relations issue for future emergencies and major disasters. Ultimately, there are numerous politics associated with evacuations and false alarms, making it difficult to evacuate a given area in the future.

Evacuation Decision Considerations

The decision to evacuate a given area is a very serious decision and one that can save lives if the decision is made fast enough and for the right area. Where Hurricane Katrina was concerned, debates about the evacuation efforts continued for years. Where Hurricane Harvey was concerned, some areas were not evacuated because of other issues that would have made evacuation potentially more dangerous for citizens.

The decision to evacuate a given area is an important one, but the decision needs to be made quickly with logistical concerns taking their place in the decision.

Public Relations and the Decision to Evacuate

Unfortunately, the decision to evacuate a given area, like so many other issue areas of emergency management, is politically charged. Whether an area is evacuated or not becomes political, as are the logistical concerns of moving people out of a given area.

Funding and budgeting becomes an important factor in this difficult decision. There are numerous factors that politicians and emergency managers consider, which complicates evacuation efforts.

More importantly, the decision also becomes a public relations issue as individuals wonder whether the evacuation effort is worth it. Some people may not believe that it's even worth evacuating, based on their prior experiences.

In some cases, a true emergency may not have existed or the decision to evacuate was too precautionary, forcing individuals to leave a given area for nothing. Emergency managers consistently need to combat this perception on a regular basis as it is dangerous to the general public -- especially if individuals choose to not evacuate when they really should.

Conversely, because of terribly serious situations that are well known in prior disasters, many individuals won't wait to evacuate a given area. This activity is very helpful, but is not sustainable.

Weather predictions may lead individuals to believe this may be the next "big one." But when that event doesn't pan out, these evacuation efforts cast a negative light on the perceptions of a population, making them less likely to evacuate for a major event in the future.

Working with False Alarms in Public Relations

Ultimately, false alarms provide a number of issues to a general public and emergency management office, especially the public relations issue of false alarms. Education has been important in managing this issue, but false alarms will become less of a concern when emergency managers become more transparent with the decisions they make.

The more information emergency managers can give the general public on a developing issue, the more the public may feel they trust their emergency management office to make a good decision. Transparency has become an important concept in the federal government for politicians in working with their constituents.

By providing more transparency into their decision-making process, emergency managers will combat public misperceptions. In turn, the general public will better understand what kind of event they are dealing with and how to effectively stay out of the path of danger.

Start an Emergency & Disaster Management Degree at American Military University.

Allison G. S. Knox Passionate about the issues affecting ambulances and disaster management, Allison focuses on Emergency Management and Emergency Medical Services policy. Allison has taught at the undergraduate level since 2010. Prior to teaching, she worked in a level-one trauma center emergency department and for a member of Congress in Washington, D.C. She holds four master’s degrees in Emergency Management, National Security Studies, International Relations, and History; a Graduate Certificate in Homeland Security; and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Allison is an Emergency Medical Technician, Lifeguard, and Lifeguard Instructor, and is trained in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. She serves on the Board of Trustees for Pi Gamma Mu International Honor Society as Chancellor of the Southeast Region, Vice Chair of the Tactical Emergency Medical Support Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and serves as the Advocacy Coordinator of Virginia with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She is also a member of several committees including the Editorial Committee with APCO, the Rescue Task Force Committee with the International Public Safety Association, and the Advocacy Committee with the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians. She also serves as Chair of the Leadership Development Program for the 2020 Pi Gamma Mu Triennial Convention. Allison has published several book reviews and continues to write about issues affecting ambulances, emergency management, and homeland security.