Interview 2 (Disaster Relief: Public Safety and Public Opinion after a Plant Emergency)
My second interviewee joined a major healthcare manufacturing company in November, but has worked in chemical engineering for about 20 years; he holds a professional license. His title is director of health, safety and environmental affairs. He is also a member of a volunteer disaster relief task force. This group was established to respond in the event of a terrorist attack in the wake of September 11, but has been employed on civil emergencies since its inception. He has returned to UMR several times as a speaker on ethics, being a professional engineer, and the aftermath of a wrecked train carrying a chemical payload within a town. Additionally, I found he has also experienced a situation very similar to the scenario.
Previously he worked with a company that produced t-nonyt-mercaptan, which is an odorizer for natural gas, among other purposes. The odor is considered noxious and has an odor detection threshold by the human nose at concentrations in the parts per trillion range. During maintenance downtime, some of this compound was unknowingly created in a side reaction and vented through a flare to the atmosphere. This flare was designed to destroy smaller molecules that are piped to it, but was incapable of breaking down these large and complex molecules, which passed through virtually unaffected. They estimate five pounds of the substance were released. People up to 6 miles away began calling utility companies and fire stations, reporting what they thought was a natural gas leak. Utility trucks were dispatched and the story appeared on the news before the plant realized what happened. I was surprised to find his personal experience of dealing with the media and public reaction to an event so closely matched the scenario.
Interviewee 2 began by saying a good company would have some kind of emergency and disaster response plan. Under this plan, key personnel are pre-delegated responsibilities during an event. This plan should also include a media response plan, under the care of a public information officer (PIO). The PIO is one of the preordained response roles. This officer also serves the same purpose as the "censor" described by the first interviewee. They prepare official responses and are the only contact with the media until things return to normal.
This officer must react to the nature of the public. The interviewee noted people are most likely to believe the first thing they hear, and treat additional comments with skepticism. Thus, it is important to squelch rumors as soon as it is known an event occurred. As soon as enough information is gathered, a press release should be issued. Typically, the media relations plan contains a 'standby statement' suitable for immediate publication during some emergency. This statement, which should be edited to fit the situation, contains three main concepts. First it admits something has occurred on site and the company is aware of the problem. Second, it assures there is no public health threat, and that everyone is safe. Finally it states the company is taking the necessary steps to correct the problem.
Once responders have secured the area and it is safe, it is good to work with the media. Along with preparing detailed statements to the press, it can be beneficial to the company to work with them to get their story. The public information officer would invite camera operators and reporters into the site. Having previous knowledge of the site, the PIO can offer suggestions of good shots, and perhaps steer attention away from things that should not be broadcast (beyond disaster response, this may include trade secrets). Operating in this manner builds public trust, as it is clear the company is not trying to hide from the public eye, and the site is safe enough for the press to be standing there. Conversely, non-cooperation can lead to wild rumors, general mistrust and allegations, and even photographers camping around the front gates or scaling fences trying to get shots where they are not allowed. By the time the company is ready to make public statements under this situation, the reaction of the general public may be irrevocably turned against them.
Towards the end of the interview, when asked what the first concerns during a disaster are, the interviewee said life, environment, and property. The absolute first concern, before any media or public reaction considerations, is to protect the workers, civilians, and emergency responders. Anyone who may have been injured in an event is the first priority. Care must be taken that the responders are safe. This includes using proper respirators or environmental suits if the area itself is dangerous. If there is any concern for public safety, do what is necessary to secure or remove people. Next, make sure there is no threat to the environment. This includes containing and neutralizing any chemicals that may damage the soil, water, or atmosphere or any organisms therein. Finally, the property of the company and any surrounding property are to be secured.
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"Interview 2 (Disaster Relief: Public Safety and Public Opinion after a Plant Emergency)"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Wednesday, May 22, 2013