Training session an eye-opener

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2004

It was my privilege Tuesday to be a part of the Covington County Emergency Management Agency's training session on biological outbreaks and terrorism.

This training session was a roundtable discussion of likely scenarios of events that, God forbid, could potentially happen in our area; and what actions would be taken to minimize the risks of a potentially fatal occurrence.

Although I have no medical training other than two months observing respiratory therapists at work and my CPR certification, I find this type of work fascinating. I also find it educational and extremely informative.

For the most part, my role in the session was to bring a media professional's point of view to the scenario. Provide information on what EMA officials could expect from different media outlets and what would be expected of the EMA officials to provide.

Listening to the other officials in attendance, I gathered a sense that we all had the same goal - to do what's best for the public. I learned that our local hospital has a plan in place to handle certain types of events, and that the county health department and the county's law enforcement agencies had plans in place.

I also learned that we don't communicate enough with each other on these plans, and that a big part of this training session was to resolve that issue and figure out a way to merge all the plans into one, comprehensive, easy-to-follow, instantaneous plan that would prevent public panic and the spread of a possible deadly outbreak.

Along with that, I learned that I will be playing a very vital role in this process. As the editor of the local newspaper, I will be responsible for making sure the information that is reported is factual and timely.

It's something the staff at the newspaper strives for constantly, but in a critical case - a comprehensive and absolute factual story is of the utmost importance.

As someone who has actually been involved in a disaster, I had a pretty good grasp of what the situation could potentially be. I also knew that local officials weren't exactly prepared to handle the influx of national media that will follow such an outbreak.

Most of the local EMA officials have never dealt with pushy television producers, over zealous reporters from newspapers who think they rule the world, and television reporters whose ego is only eclipsed by the fact that they won "sweeps" month.

I have. And that's first-hand knowledge I can share, and I'm willing to share with those officials.

And all the other emergency and medical officials in attendance realized the same thing. We all know a little bit that could help the others in a worst-case scenario.

We also learned that we've got to communicate with each other more and be more attentive to our surroundings.

In the scenario we were presented, one tidbit of information that was divulged early on could have been easily misconstrued.

It wasn't until the end of the exercise, when the scenario had run its course, that we realized that bit of information was irrelevant.

It would have been up to me - and other media - to determine whether or not that piece of information was released.

At first thought, I immediately had a thousand different scenarios running through my head. By jumping the gun, I would have created a public panic. By gathering more information, I will have prevented the panic and moved on to the next piece of information.

It's a tough call. One that I'm more prepared now to handle.

And it's a call I hope the other media would give more thought to as well.

You see, in an event that's of the magnitude we discussed in this training session Tuesday, beating the competition to the story shouldn't be the first priority. The first priority should be to the public and their safety.

Call me old-fashioned, or even just plain out of touch with my journalistic roots, but I really believe that the public safety should come first. And it's my job as the editor of the local newspaper to make sure the public has all the information they need.

My actions could go a long way towards creating or preventing a state of panic.

And I want to prevent the panic, not be the cause of it.