Local PIOs Respond to Disaster

Thomas O'Neill III, Peoria County Board

Public information played a large role in the aftermath of the November tornadoes that struck Tazewell, Woodford and other counties throughout the state. Getting accurate and timely information to the victims, local and national media, and the general public, as well as thwarting misinformation and controlling rumors, is crucial in times of emergency. Fortunately, our region has a team of public information officers (PIO) trained and ready to respond to a large-scale disaster that occurs anywhere in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall and Stark counties.

The PIO Committee formed in July of 2007 as a subcommittee of Homeland Security Region-10, which serves the aforementioned counties in central Illinois. The committee is comprised of more than 60 communications, public relations and marketing professionals from local and state government agencies such as Peoria County and IDOT, law enforcement, hospitals, public health, emergency services agencies like The Salvation Army, educational institutions, private business, and more.

Chaired by Peoria County's communications director, the committee meets quarterly and participates in exercises and trainings throughout the year, but it can be activated any time to respond to disasters like the Elmwood tornado, last spring's flooding, and of course, November's tornadoes. Their primary purpose during disasters is to keep the public informed of what happened and what citizens need to do to keep themselves and their families safe.

In addition to vetting new information for accuracy and communicating directly with the public through social media, committee members are responsible for sending press releases; coordinating press conferences and public meetings; responding to media inquiries; and, in the case of Washington's tornado, developing and distributing daily fact sheets for affected residents. Accomplishing these tasks in the days following a disaster requires a team effort, and for Washington, it meant deploying 12 members of the committee to assist with public information duties during the first week, then scaling back to four who continued to serve the community for several more weeks.

Since its establishment, the PIO committee has been preparing for disasters affecting a considerable number of people or large geographic area within the five counties. The committee participates in the CodeRed Emergency Notification System that alerts all members simultaneously to disaster and activation. In addition, it has agreements with more than 100 locations in the five-county region to serve as a communications hub or Joint Information Center (JIC) during disaster. Indeed, beginning November 18th, the committee was able to operate out of the Washington Park District building, one of four locations in Washington that had agreed to serve as a JIC in the event of disaster.

One year ago, the committee created the Central Illinois Emergency Information Facebook page (facebook.com/CentralIllinoisEmergencyInformation), and at its October meeting last year, decided to add a Twitter account: @CIEmergencyInfo (twitter.com/CIEmergencyInfo). The committee is currently reaching out to local businesses that would be willing to post emergency information messages on their marquees or electronic signage should disaster occur in their community. If your business is willing to post emergency messages during disaster, please contact the PIO Committee at centralillinoispio@gmail.com.

While we hope never to activate groups like the PIO Committee, it is comforting to know they are there when we need them. iBi

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