Disaster Notifications
Brian Gongol

Despite the fact that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center had early knowledge that a magnitude 9.0 quake had struck the Indian Ocean, they had no established procedures for notifying people in surrounding countries.

There will be considerable talk about establishing some kind of official network for delivering tsunami warnings to the Indian Ocean region. But in the meantime, it's wrong to suggest that there's no way to get the news out in case of disasters, even when no established procedure exists.

In Case of Disaster, Call...
An individual or agency with urgent information to share and no established procedure to follow should contact through any means possible at least one from each of the following categories:

Category Examples Why
International Organizations
  • United Nations
  • International agencies specific to the disaster. In the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the World Meteorological Organization would have been a good choice.
  • Major national agencies specific to the disaster. The US, British, and Australian national weather agencies would have been logical to reach regarding a tsunami.
The US and UK both have especially international footprints, and the WMO keeps a comprehensive list of national weather agencies.
International Relief Organizations Many international relief organizations have individuals "on the ground" all over the globe. They not only are integral to the cleanup effort after the fact, they also are typically well-networked within the countries in which they operate and may be able to feed useful warnings to the appropriate authorities. While the Catholic Church may seem an unusual suggestion, it is the world's largest hierarchical organization and has a universal presence.
International Media News organizations are ideal for three reasons:
  1. They want the story for its intrinsic news value.
  2. They are the means by which most people would receive warning.
  3. Perhaps least obviously, they by nature have the contact information for the key authorities who would require notice in disaster events. A news agency without a good Rolodex is no news agency at all.
A valuable essay on this very subject was posted by VOA researcher Kim Andrew Elliott through Radio Netherlands on Jan. 6, 2005.
Local Media in the Affected Area
  • Newspapers
  • Broadcasters
  • National radio services
24-7 Services
  • Airports
  • Hospitals
  • Police agencies
These are the places that "never sleep". Someone is always on duty and able to answer a telephone at major airports, hospitals, and police agencies. They are almost universally in contact with officials on a frequent basis.
Companies with a Global Footprint Global firms typically have disaster protocols already on record, and many have round-the-clock operations in every region of the world. As with media outlets, they often have the contacts already in place for reaching the appropriate officials for local disasters.
Governments The United States and Great Britain have diplomats in every part of the world. Calls to the State Department or Foreign Office would have started the chain of contact that might have led to immediate information-sharing.

The lack of established channels for sharing information on disasters is really no excuse for the failure to distribute that information. It is one thing for the knowledge simply to not exist; in the Indian Ocean case, the tsunami-detection equipment that offers warning in the Pacific has never been deployed to the Indian Ocean. But advance knowledge of a major oceanic quake would give one reasonable cause to suspect likely effects such as a tsunami. The failure to rapidly distribute critical knowledge of that sort because no protocol existed, though, is a systemic failure that could have easily been mitigated had someone simply tried the examples above.

The Monday-morning quarterbacking on this event has unfortunately reflected the same moribund bureaucratic thinking that will cause these failures to re-occur in the future:
"I've been talking to our tsunami people and they have no contact with any of these nations on the tsunamis. We don't have anyone there. We get it from the press."

- Waverly Person, USGS National Earthquake Information Center, quoted in The Sydney Morning Herald
What is needed is more flexible, market-like thinking. Market thinking asks, "Who would want or use this information?" instead of "What's the rule for distributing this information?" The old way, as tragically shown by the Indian Ocean tsunami, leads to death. We can't blame the individuals who knew about the pending disaster for what happened -- by all accounts, they tried their best to alert the authorities. What we should blame is the system that led them to believe that the only answer when the authorities can't be found is to keep trying to find thm.