Saturday, March 26, 2005

PTWC Visit (Part 2): Identifying Areas for Change, Starting with Policy

Reacting to my repeated assertions about the importance of contacting the media, McCreery made one of his more notable comments: The National Weather Service (NWS) won’t allow the PTWC to call the media; the media have to come to the PTWC. This policy apparently is based on a concern at NWS and NOAA that if the PTWC calls some media, it would have to call them all. So right there is a major policy problem. The PTWC is prohibited by the NWS and possibly NOAA from using the news media as an improved warning channel over what exists today.

That policy needs focus and change. I put it to him: If tomorrow the PTWC detected a 9.5 earthquake in a subduction zone region of the Indian Ocean that assuredly had generated a tsunami, would the PTWC do anything different than what it did on December 25 HST? I.E., have lessons been learned? Are media notification protocols being rewritten? What are NOAA’s communications professionals doing to ensure lives are saved after tomorrow’s earthquake because of what the PTWC knows and does?

Maybe he was just wearing down after nearly two hours along this line, but McCreery started making observations that were encouraging. Without putting him on the spot here in this web log, I think McCreery sees the appropriateness of attempting to warn people when the PTWC detects an imminent danger.

I read him a quote from the Communiqué of the early-March conference in Paris on the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean region – “Agree that the Member States should have the responsibility to have control over the issuance of warning within their respective territories;” – and asked McCreery what that means to him. He said the so-called Member States don’t want evacuations within their territories without first having an ability to evaluate a warning from the PTWC or any other source. That’s understandable, but doesn’t this requirement to receive and evaluate warning information simply delay transmission to coastline inhabitants? Couldn’t McCreery raise the implications of the Communiqué at the next planning meeting in Mauritius in April?

McCreery said he indeed could raise the issue and ask the Member States’ representatives what they could live with in the way of alerts from sources such as the Associated Press, CNN, etc., coming into their territories. That truly is encouraging, as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission -- the United Nations agency coordinating the new tsunami warning effort -- may not deal with the media-notification issue without prompting from someone like McCreery.

We talked about the problem of reaching out to the news media efficiently. Telephonic contact seems unlikely due to the PTWC’s workload, staffing level and the great number of media that logically would need to be reached. McCreery noted that electronic messages are sent routinely to the media about earthquakes and potential tsunamis within the Pacific, so he feels the media already are covered. I told him that the media may receive dozens of such messages a day, so a truly urgent message would need to stand out. Also, a message intended for the Indian Ocean region that requires immediate attention might well be lost in the chatter, which is why I’ve been fixated on telephone contact.

McCreery then asked whether there’s a better way to issue a warning for a tsunami or earthquake outside the PTWC’s priority area. On his own he suggested that perhaps a special electronic product could be created and coordinated with the media – a product that would be used only in extraordinary circumstances to cover situations that aren’t within the PTWC’s normal area of responsibility, such as the Indian Ocean.

The Bottom Line

McCreery seems willing to consider improvements in the warning protocols. When it was put to him that maintaining the status quo in alert procedures would be inconceivable in light of 300,000 deaths in December, he agreed. He asked for the number of the Associated Press’s Honolulu bureau and apparently intends to make at least an initial introductory call that we’ve been urging for several weeks. Contact with CNN for preliminary discussions also seems likely.

Doug Carlson
Honolulu, HI
March 26, 2005

3 comments:

Doug said...

Nice to see that you're getting some movement from the people who have some influence. I'm sure you'll keep after them.

You must be stoked. Congratulations. What's next?

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