By Tom Iovino
As an emergency public information officer, I used to become frustrated by people who would choose to ignore the warnings our office would give out regarding hurricanes and other hazardous weather. I mean, we live on the Gulf Coast of Florida, right in the prime hurricane zone.
Yet, I hear all of the excuses – somehow, we are immune to the effects of a hurricane because of some Native American blessing or our unique geography.
For many emergency managers, the temptation is there to call these people fools. I’m pretty sure at one time, we all have that fantasy where we can pull a page out of General Russel Honore’s playbook and tell people to, “not get stuck on stupid.”
My moment of clarity
I had a moment of clarity while at my mechanic’s garage one day. My car had been acting funny – overheating with the air conditioning kicking off sporadically. I wasn’t sure what was causing the problem, but since things worked well the majority of the time, I didn’t think it was too critical. That was until I found foamy oil stains on my driveway one morning.
With my wife following in case I broke down, I drove my car to the dealership’s service department. One look, and the mechanic told me that the head had cracked, allowing oil and coolant to mix. The car was toast.
“At any point, did you notice anything wrong with the car?” he asked. That’s when I ‘fessed up and told him about the symptoms. “You idiot,” he told me. “All that was wrong was a thermostat. If you had come in, we could have fixed it for you.”
The mechanic hit the nail on the head. He was an ASE certified mechanic. He knew automotive systems inside and out. He would have been able to diagnose the problem in minutes had it been his car. What did I know about auto maintenance? Nada. And, that lack of knowledge cost me dearly that day as my wife and I unexpectedly went car shopping.
What does this story mean to you, a PIO or emergency communicator?
Because we know so much about emergency preparedness, we find ourselves in the same position as my mechanic. We know intuitively what steps need to be taken to prepare ourselves for a potential disaster. We know about survival kits, evacuation plans and the like.
But, for the majority of our citizens out there, disaster preparedness isn’t the first thing on their minds. They have kids to take to ballet or basketball practice. They have bosses who make demands. They have groceries to buy and hobbies to pursue. They are very smart and talented at what they do, but their expertise lies elsewhere.
They are also very capable of learning what they need to do to help protect themselves and their families. It’s not our job to look down our noses at these people, but to help them recognize that disaster preparedness is a simple process that they can participate in as well.
As I left the dealership with my new car, the mechanic pulled me aside and apologized to me for calling me an idiot. He took the time to explain to me the importance of preventative maintenance and how to recognize when things aren’t going well with the car. He gave me a list of things I can easily look at while fuelling up, and things I should probably bring the car in to have checked.
This simple act of helping me understand what I could do to make my car last longer helped more than any lecture or scolding I could have received.
Maybe it’s time for all of us to give our public education campaigns a look under the hood to see how far they can take us down the road.
Tune into episode #026 of The Crisis Intelligence Podcast, where Melissa Agnes and Tom Iovino discuss communications strategies for today’s PIO.
Tom Iovino is an emergency public information officer for Pinellas County. He has provided public education and information support to Emergency Management through 19 storm activations, the 2012 Republican National Convention, major water main breaks, the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, wildfires, large scale accidents and other emergencies. He was part of the deployment team to New York City in response to Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Iovino is the primary public information contact in the county for emergency matters. He is fully compliant in the Federal National Incident Management System (NIMS) and has been trained at the National Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was one of five instructors chosen in 2012 to lead the inaugural Master PIO class held at the Emergency Management Institute.
Iovino is an instructor at the Governors and National hurricane conferences and instructs basic PIO classes through Florida’s emergency training program. He is also the editor of The PIO Chronicles, a blog dedicated to providing PIOs with new communications strategies. You can follow him on Twitter: @PIO_Chronicles.