Emergency management professionals look at many aspects of communities, citizens, events, and resources as part of their planning but there’s a critical citizen service element that’s hidden – a connection to provide emotional support long after the disaster is over. Agencies typically use this model to describe the phases of a disaster:
Mitigation – eliminating or reducing risks to avoid disasters or reduce their impact
Readiness – preparing first responders and citizens for likely disasters
Response – providing immediate assistance during a disaster
Recovery – returning the community to normal
While the goal in this final step is to return a community to the way it was before, there are some events where the community will never return to normal because the lives lost and material damage are equaled by the emotional damage left behind. For example the Boston Marathon bombing will still be affecting the people involved long after the city returns to its normal rhythm. For these people there’s no way to return to normal – their struggle will be to create a “new normal”. This emotional recovery process often includes a need to remain connected to the event and others affected long after the event.
These activities have always gone on after disasters – we often see commemorative plaques and handmade memorials. Facebook memorials are the next step but these have been driven by individuals and government hasn’t been part of serving this critical citizen need. But there’s a new way of looking at technology as the enabler of a connection with citizens around an event and incorporating this capability into emergency management planning.
One recent example of this new approach is the way that the town of Newtown, CT responded after the Sandy Hook School shooting in December, 2012. Newtown did an incredible job of managing both the immediate emotional impact and the complex donation logistics after the event but saw the need to remain connected with their citizens through a channel that was separate from the town’s regular business. While there are several Facebook pages memorializing the event, Newtown leaders wanted to support their citizens by driving this connection themselves. Working with the team of GE, Microsoft, and Adxstudio town leaders launched www.onenewtown.org – a long-term channel for the town to provide updates and for citizens to connect around the event. While this portal leverages new technologies like the cloud its mission isn’t new. It enables government to help people do something they’ve always had to do alone – cope after a disaster.
By driving this long-term connection Newtown is supporting its citizens’ needs – both physical and emotional – as they create the “new normal” in their lives. It also highlights that government can only help people through this emotional recovery process by making it an explicit element in their emergency management planning. A new phase should be added to the disaster phase model – Connection – for the long-term emotional engagement with people around an event after the physical recovery phase has ended. By making the new Connection phase part of their emergency management planning and delivering the right resources, agencies can support citizens’ physical and emotional needs during a disaster and into the future.