Philly Building Collapse – Translating awareness into action – The need for Community-based Risk Communication
Bridging the gap between awareness of risk and acting upon risk
by Stan Polit, Firestorm Expert Council Member, Merged Media
Over the last year, my Wednesday afternoon schedule has been highly predictable. At the end of the day, I will leave my house in west Philadelphia, do some grocery shopping at the local Trader Joe’s, and then stop at the Salvation Army Thrift Store at 22nd and Market Street. As of early Wednesday morning, I had planned to follow my usual routine.
When I heard about the collapse, I was overtaken by a series of emotions. I kept thinking about my plans for the day and the very real possibility that I may have been at the store during the demolition. Many times I had gone into the basement where customers had been trapped and injured. Many times I walked past the building which would ultimately collapse and lead to the death of six people. Many times I had thought to myself that it seemed dangerous to be demolishing a four story building in the midst of a busy commercial district. Despite these experiences, I never once thought to react.
Wednesday’s events represent an important reminder for crisis and risk communicators about the challenges of bridging the gap between awareness of risk and acting upon risk. Far too many accounts of this week’s events included people from the community describing how they felt that something was wrong with the demolition. Even people with no construction background seemed to have the intuition that the combination of a brittle wall, rickety construction, and a one story building below would create a dangerous situation for the Salvation Army store and the surrounding area.
For better or worse, our media-driven culture gives us instant access to the aftermath of tragedy. Within seconds of any event, we can view countless pictures of the wreckage and read a myriad of stories speculating about what happened. Any discussions of the events pre-crisis are focused only on pointing the finger at who should be blamed and held liable.
This event highlights that one of the collective responsibilities that comes with social media is for us to think and communicate like a community. When we see a risk, we should feel a responsibility to use the channels available to make others aware of a potential problem and persuade them why they should be willing to respond.
We are certainly barraged with risk-based messages. We have all heard the phrase “if you see something, say something” a million times but how many of us would actually take time out of our schedules to call the authorities about a suspicious back-pack. How many people during natural disasters ignore the warnings of meteorologists because their “experience” tells them that it will not be as bad as it seems. We all know that suspicious bags could be dangerous, that storms can be violent, and demolished buildings may pose a danger if the laws of physics work in the wrong way. However, our experiences deceive us by easing us into believing “it will never happen to me.” We call this Disaster Denial.
Social media allows us as citizens to dictate what is important and news-worthy. No longer do we have to wait for a journalist to decide whether our story is worthy of investigation. We have the power and responsibility to use the communication tools at our disposal to mobilize and react.
Maybe these efforts would not have prevented this tragedy. However, if enough people had trusted their instincts and made the local authorities aware of their concerns, a life-saving intervention may have happened. The fact that Philadelphia’s License and Inspection Office has found numerous demolition violations throughout the city since the collapse is a sign that acting on awareness has life-saving potential. Communication is all about empowerment. What could be more powerful than using that influence to stop a crisis before it ever exists?