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City to upgrade emergency communication, preparedness still key

Posted: January 14, 2013 - 1:05am

After the recent earthquake, residents were shaken and wondering where to best get information and instruction. Tom Mattice of the City and Borough of Juneau’s emergency management department said CBJ is working on upgrading emergency communication, but that having a plan in place is an individual or family’s best course of action.

If an earthquake of a certain magnitude occurs within a certain distance, a tsunami warning is automatically generated for all of Southeast Alaska.

“But that’s different for each community,” Mattice said, “We’re not critically vulnerable.”

Mattice’s advice is that if the quake is 20 seconds or greater in duration or if you are knocked down, you might want to head for higher ground.

If there’s no emergency communication, either there’s no real emergency, or it’s a real emergency but there was no time for warning. That’s why Mattice suggests residents shouldn’t expect to rely on emergency broadcasts anyway.

That being said, the City is working to have accurate and informative emergency alerts. This week, there should be updates to the City’s website, juneau.org, though you won’t notice them unless there is an emergency. Mattice will be able to update the city’s website with a red banner with emergency information. There would be a link anyone could copy and paste to share emergency information via news sites or social media.

Many residents turned to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to share their experiences or to seek information from others. If you’ve noticed so far there is no presence from the City or Capital City Fire and Rescue, it’s not because it hasn’t been discussed. Juneau Police Department does have a twitter account (@JuneauPD), as does the Parks and Recreation department.

“We’ve considered having social media,” Mattice said, “But with good things come bad things.”

Fire Chief Richard Etheridge said he had pitched the idea of social media for the fire department before, but it had been denied.

Lt. Dave Campbell with JPD said they follow guidelines set by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, that only Cindee Brown-Mills manages the Twitter account.

Campbell’s advice for social media was to be critical about the information you’re receiving. He said he saw posts following the earthquake with links to USGS and NOAA sites, and that having a link to a legitimate site is a good sign.

Mattice said the reason social media hasn’t been adopted outside the police department and the department of Parks and Recreation is because there are liabilities associated with the use of social media. He said they’re reviewing it though; they have city lawyers and City Manager Kim Kiefer working on it.

More important than the potential for use of social media is the potential for better personalizing the messages to individual communities.

Mattice said there is currently one blanket message that goes out to all the communities, but Sitka would need to be more alert to tsunami warnings than Juneau.

“Juneau’s not at high risk for a tsunami,” Mattice said, adding “if (an earthquake) is localized enough, if it’s really dangerous, you can’t count on (emergency systems) either way.”

The City is in talks with local radio stations to potentially give Mattice’s position “a back door to radio” to provide more community-specific information in addition to the emergency alerts — but that’s still being looked into.

When it comes to communication in an emergency, Mattice said even phone lines, cellular service and Internet can go down, so social media isn’t going to work any better than the emergency alert system as is. He said if a person is really anxious to hear up-to-the-minute information about quake activity and tsunami warnings, they could get a battery powered NOAA Weather Radio and tune in.

The overwhelming message was that Juneau is pretty safe due to its location — sheltered by islands and on a strike slip fault, not a thrust fault — but in case of a major emergency, it is best to be prepared and not to count on the emergency alert system.

To prepare yourself and your family, visit juneau.org/emergency and form a plan.

• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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