Crisis Communication – Japan Ignored Own Radiation Forecasts

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Crisis Communication – Japan ignored own radiation forecasts

SUMMARY ARTICLE: Japan failed to act on its warning system for radiation threats following the tsunami –induced nuclear crisis this spring.

The system predicted Karino Elementary School would be directly in the path of the plume emerging from the tsunami-hit Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, but instead of evacuating the area, the school was turned into a temporary evacuation center. Reports from the forecast system were sent to Japan’s nuclear safety agency, but the flow of data stopped there. Prime Minister Naoto Kan and others involved in declaring evacuation areas never saw the reports, and neither did local authorities. So thousands of people stayed for days in areas that the system had identified as high-risk, an Associated Press investigation has found.
ANALYSIS by Dr. Don Donahue, Director, Firestorm Healthcare Response Team

Crisis Communication Breakdown

The apparent communication breakdown that led to the designation of a high-risk location as an emergency shelter is an example of the disconnects that often complicate disaster scenarios – akin to what military planners call the “fog of war.

That term, attributed to Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz, reflects the confusion and sometime dysfunction that accompanies an unusual situation with rapidly changing circumstances and uncertain information.

Crisis Communication Planning

Many factors can contribute to such failures. Emergency operations centers can be taken out by the disaster [as happened in New York City on 9/11], planning factors can be proven incorrect, or the disaster can overwhelm existing capabilities.

There is a delicate balance in disaster planning between overwrought, “doomsday” scenarios and underestimating the risk for economic, political, public relations, or other  considerations (no mayor wants to be depicted as leading “SARS City”).

By definition, a catastrophic disaster is overwhelming. The inevitable shortfalls can be reduced by:

  • prior coordination (knowing what to expect and from whom)
  • redundancies in systems and processes
  • simplified checklists to guide emergency procedures

These all start with an honest risk assessment, devoid of self interest, ownership, or ego. A pre-acknowledged report requirement – in this case the projected danger zones from a radioactive plume – sets the standard for comprehensive response.

As the disaster is unfolding is not the time to assess needs. There will be inevitable gaps, but these can be minimized via rigorous projection, planning, and practice.

–Dr. Don Donahue, Director, Firestorm Healthcare Response Team


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