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Number 574 • September 22, 2011 | Past Issues













1) Contagion: Hollywood Catches the Epidemiology Bug

From zombie outbreaks to population-destroying plagues, Hollywood has never had a shortage of pandemic flicks. So, the public health-minded moviegoer might ask, what’s all the buzz about Contagion? What makes it different from a slew of other viral-takeover videos?

One reason is that Contagion gets it right, experts say. 

“It's refreshing to see a movie that tries to be as authentic as this one,” said Caltech virologist Alice Huang in a discussion about the film. “I thought it was really good at depicting the real situation.”

The movie’s premise follows a bat virus which is transmitted to pigs and eventually to a woman visiting Hong Kong. As she returns home to the United States, she unknowingly spreads the disease, sparking a worldwide pandemic that will wipe out about a quarter of its victims. Meanwhile, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention search feverishly for a cause and cure, their message of prevention is obscured by a charismatic blogger pushing conspiracy theories and homeopathic cures.

While some liberties were taken with both the science and how society might react to such a threat, many public health professionals felt the movie does plenty to support their cause.

“There was some caricature, but this film effectively conveyed public health concepts,” said RAND Health Director Arthur Kellermann in the discussion with Huang and UCLA infectious disease expert Peter Katona. “The importance of infrastructure, the importance of personnel, the notion that germs don't care about your politics or your ideology.”

The movie's authenticity (which critics also cite as a selling point) wasn’t achieved by chance. Director Steven Soderbergh worked closely with the CDC and even filmed parts of the movie at CDC headquarters in Atlanta. The partnership resulted in not only a more accurate depiction of viral spread, but may have also helped shift the presentation of epidemiologists from lab coat lackeys to the disease detectives they are.

“It seemed to do a pretty credible job of depicting what an [Epidemic Intelligence Service] officer would do in the field,” Douglas Hamilton, who heads the CDC’s EIS Corps, told the Washington Post. “It’s a movie, so everything is a little compressed. The other thing is that EIS officers are very much the point of the spear when CDC responds, but in something as significant as the disease being described in this movie, CDC’s response would be much more response than just sending one officer into the field.”

Aside from getting most of the facts straight and giving a long unremarked field of science its due, Contagion’s biggest appeal to the public health community might be good old-fashioned PR. (And speaking of PR, don’t miss this billboard made of real viruses and fungi.) With H1N1 largely out of view, it’s been easier for the public to forget all those lessons learned about preventing the spread of disease.

“The appearance of Contagion is a good thing,” Scott McPherson, a flu preparedness specialist and the Florida House of Representatives chief information officer, told the Desert Sun. “It's revved us up and gotten us back on our game.”

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2) Congressional Research Service Weighs in on Social Media

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's relationship with social media seems destined to be like your granny and Facebook—she might set up an account, but she’s not going to use it right and all the while she’ll be certain it’s going to crash her computer and steal her identity.

That, at least, is the tentative and curmudgeonly gist of a recently released Congressional Research Service report titled, Social Media and Disasters: Current Uses, Future Options, and Policy Considerations. The report was created in response to congressional curiosity about “whether FEMA can move beyond using social media for informational purposes and apply it to improving disaster response and recovery capabilities.” The answer is decidedly Magic 8 Ball-like: "Reply hazy, try again."

The report examines two types of social media use by local and international emergency management agencies. It differentiates “passive” dissemination from a more “systematic” approach that might include issuing official communiqués and warnings, receiving requests for assistance, and monitoring the public's posts to enhance situational awareness.

“Many of these applications remain speculative, while others uses remain in their infancy,” author Bruce R. Lindsay writes. “Consequently, most emergency management organizations have confined their use of social media to the dissemination of information.”

Although the report points out a variety of promising  ways FEMA might use social media (creating maps and damage estimates from user-submitted data, delivering targeted recovery assistance, and mobilizing first responders), it concludes with warnings about socially driven misinformation, use of media to mislead officials, and technological limits.

Add the uncertainty about the costs of administering the largely "free" technologies, and the report reaches this conclusion:

“It could be argued that the positive results of social media witnessed thus far have been largely anecdotal and that the use of social media is insufficiently developed to draw reliable conclusions on the matter. By this measure, it should therefore be further examined and researched before being adopted and used for emergencies and disasters.”

In an area where not only advances, but also adoption, are lightening fast, the wait-and-see approach might be a tad behind the times.

For instance, the CRS report comes on the heels of a Red Cross survey looking at how people used social media during disasters. Not only did the 2,057-person survey indicate that social media sources rank just below television and radio as an emergency information source, it also found that 80 percent of people thought national emergency responders should monitor social media feeds and respond promptly.

“Social media is becoming an integral part of disaster response,” Wendy Harman, American Red Cross director of social strategy, stated in a press release. “During the record-breaking 2011 spring storm season, people across America alerted the Red Cross to their needs via Facebook. We also used Twitter to connect to thousands of people seeking comfort, and safety information to help get them through the darkest hours of storms.”

Queensland Police took a similar tack during historic 2010-2011 flooding. Their take-home from the experience (which we reported on in DR 572) was emergency agencies should not only use social media vigorously, they shouldn’t hobble its use with policy and protocols.

The CRS report also comes at a time of unprecedented social media adoption by FEMA at the hands Craig Fugate, who is known to practice what he tweets. His message, given at a May 5, 2011, Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs hearing, is that if you want to reach the people, you’ve got to speak their language.

“Social media is imperative to emergency management because the public uses these communication tools regularly,” he wrote. “Rather than trying to convince the public to adjust to the way we at FEMA communicate, we must adapt to the way the public communicates by leveraging the tools that people use on a daily basis. We must use social media tools to more fully engage the public as a critical partner in our efforts.”

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3) Watch for Falling Satellites (And Hope What Goes Up Comes Down)

This Friday, on your way to work, or the gym, or drinks with friends, you could get clobbered by a piece of satellite. You probably won’t, of course, but you could. And for many, that’s fun to think about.

News that NASA’s Upper Earth Research Satellite, or UARS, will soon crash to Earth has inspired a sort of twisted glee among the public worldwide, according to the Los Angeles Times and other news sources.

The satellite-related frivolity includes glib polls on where the pieces will land ("My House!" is one option), a Web site taking bets on the point of reentry, and a FoxNews gizmo that supposedly tracks UARS in real time (the server is often down, ostensibly because of popularity). Especially titillating is the 1 in 3,200 chance UARS might fall on a person.

Aside from the sudden interest in plummeting space objects, NASA says there’s nothing that provocative about UARS' return home. As of press time Thursday morning, it was too early for scientists to determine where the 20 or so pieces expected to survive reentry would land, but odds are it will be somewhere in the 75 percent of the world that's covered by water.

"The UARS reentry hazard is being overhyped," Don Kessler, a retired NASA senior scientist for orbital debris research, told the Times.

In the mean time, it’s the things that go up and don’t come down that pose the real hazard. A National Research Council report released earlier this month warned that the growing cloud of orbital debris—manmade junk circling earth—had reached a dangerous tipping point, according to the Washington Post.

Soon the amount of celestial garbage will reach a point where it will trigger a “collision cascade,” a concept Kessler posited in the late 1970s. A collision cascade is basically a chain reaction in which junk crashes into other junk, busting it apart and leaving more pieces to crash into. Eventually, the pieces will become prevalent enough that they stray from their ring-like orbit and encase Earth in a shell of debris. Case in point—two collisions in 2007 almost doubled the number of pieces of junk orbiting Earth, according to the Post.

Of course, it’s not much fun to ponder a future 10 or 20 years from now where our atmosphere is so polluted that we can’t launch a satellite or explore space. Perhaps that’s why our collective imagination has latched onto the UARS scenario. But beware, NASA officials say: If you should come upon a piece of UARS, you shouldn’t touch it. It could be sharp.

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4) Too Much, Too Soon: Warning Fatigue Lent to Joplin Tornado Death Toll

Advance warnings of a coming EF-5 tornado were no help to those injured or killed in Joplin, Missouri. They might even have discouraged action, according to an assessment issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Tuesday.

The majority of Joplin residents surveyed did not immediately go to shelter upon hearing the initial warning, whether from local warning sirens, television, NWR [National Weather Radio,] or other sources,” the report states. “Instead, most chose to further clarify and assess their risk by waiting for, actively seeking, and filtering additional information.”

These delays were probably the result of a widespread skepticism about alert sirens, which were perceived as going off frequently and for low consequence events, such as heavy rain or thunderstorms.

“All sirens mean is there is a little more water in the gutter,” said one person surveyed in the report.

However, some of those who died might have taken precautions, National Weather Service Meteorologist and assessment team leader Richard Wagenmaker told the Associated Press.

“It's really hard to tell how many people that perished in the tornado did not take shelter,” he said. “It was a very large tornado, so there were certainly a number of people who did all the right things, took shelter in the best available place, but still found themselves in situations that weren't survivable. So it's really hard to make that assessment.”

The report includes several recommendations, including continued education for businesses, improved warning systems that provide clear, consistent messages and avoid “user complacency,” and better collaboration with local partners to provide better warning.

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5) Call Outs: Calls for Papers, Abstracts, Proposals, and More

Call for Papers
National Flood Workshop
Weather Research Center
Deadline: September 30, 2011
The Weather Research Center is accepting papers for presentation at the National Flood Workshop to be held February 27 to March 1 in Houston, Texas. Abstracts should be less than 350 words and pertain to meteorology, hydrology, flood modeling, floodplain management, or environmental impacts. For subtopics, presentation details, and how to submit an abstract online, visit the conference Web site.


Call for Proposals
ISCRAM 2012 Tracks and Sessions
International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management
Deadline: October 1, 2012
The International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management is accepting track and session proposals for its ninth annual conference to be held April 22-25 in Vancouver, Canada. Tracks that integrate program areas, moderated panel discussions, interdisciplinary workshops, and other types of interactions will be considered. Proposals should indentify track objectives, proposed participants, and potential reviewers. More information is available on the conference Web site.


Call for Submissions
Lifeline Facebook App Challenge
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Deadline: November 4, 2011
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services is soliciting software applications that will further preparedness among Facebook users. Entrants will create apps that promote the personal preparedness of both users and those in their social network, with the goal of creating community resilience and increased public health. More information can be found in the original Federal Register announcement linked above. Note the deadline change in this correction.

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6) Some New Web Resources

[Below are some new or updated Internet resources we have discovered. For an extensive list of useful Web sites dealing with hazards, see]

Old Weather
Weather geeks are no strangers to crowdsourcing data, but how often do they get to add a nautical theme? Come aboard Old Weather, where you get to choose an historic vessel and pore through its weather observations. Transcribe what you find to help scientists study past weather variability and better predict future climate changes. Your inner historian will thank you.


Ready Indian Country
There’s even more ready going on, and this time it’s targeted at tribally governed areas. Ready Indian Country is the latest addition to the family of preparedness tools. The new site offers information and resources for tribes throughout the country, including tribally-tailored emergency supply kits, family emergency plans, and emergency response plans.


California Fire Science Consortium Fall Webinars
It’s been a busy summer for firefighting, but hopefully there will soon be time to catch up on the latest news in fire science and forestry. The California Fire Science Consortium offers a series of free webinars on topics such as building in a wildfire-prone area, resilient forests, and integrating wildlife habitat with fuels reduction. Webinars are free, but they fill up quickly, so take advantage soon.


Step Up for Disaster Risk Reduction
Each year the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction sets aside a day to increase awareness about how we can reduce risk. This year, October 13 will be time for the world’s kids to step up to the challenge of the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction. The Step Up Web site gives lots of information on how you can involve kids, including the Children’s Charter, multilingual downloads, and ideas for ramping up excitement before the event.


Google Crisis Response
Busy crisis managers that want to jump on the technology train will welcome the  Google Crisis Response Web site. Cobbled together in the wake of last month’s East Coast earthquake-hurricane doubleheader, this site has a wealth of resources in one place. From document sharing to mapping to emergency plan templates, Google Crisis Response is your go-to place on the go.

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7) Conferences, Training, and Events

[Below are some recent announcements received by the Natural Hazards Center. For a comprehensive list of upcoming hazards-related meetings, visit our Web site at]

October 18-20, 2011
Ninth Symposium on Fire and Forest Meteorology
American Meteorological Society
Palm Springs, California
Cost and Registration: $510, open until filled
This conference will discuss operational forecasting, modeling, climate, field studies, and improvements to fire danger and fire behavior systems. Topics include improving computational predictions of wind field, thermodynamic approaches to estimating smoke plume heights, addressing wildfire air quality impacts, and encouraging community wildfire awareness.


October 19-21, 2011
Canadian Risk and Hazards Network Symposium
University of Ottawa
Ottawa, Canada
Cost and Registration: $555, open until filled
This conference will focus on community resilience in populated urban areas and First Nations communities. Topics include decision support for risk based planning, mobility in emergency evacuations, hazard vulnerability mapping, and public engagement strategies.


October 31 to November 2, 2011
Integrated Research on Disaster Risk
Integrated Research on Disaster Risk
Beijing, China
Cost and Registration: $391, closes October 15
This conference will discuss characterizing risk, making decisions in complex and changing contexts, reducing risk, and minimizing losses. Topics include public trust in disaster risk management, reconstruction after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami, climate change and migration, and long- and short-range forecasting of volcanic eruptions.


November 2-4, 2011
Earthquake Insight Field Trip
U.S. Geological Survey
St. Louis, Missouri
Cost and Registration: $550, open until filled
This field trip will launch from the Lambert-St. Louis International airport, stopping at locations with earthquake significance in Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Stops include historic structures damaged in the 1811-1812 New Madrid earthquakes and the 2008 Mt. Carmel, Illinois, earthquake. Earthquake research in progress and discussions of industries with concentrated exposure to earthquakes will also be included.


November 15-16, 2011
Public Health and Medical Disaster Response in Action
The Center for Preparedness Education
Omaha, Nebraska
Cost and Registration: $150, closes November 8
This conference will showcase the experiences and lessons learned by medical and public health personnel when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, this May. Session topics include emergency medical services response team experiences, impacts to Mercy St. John’s Hospital, security and safety at Freeman Health, and impacts to home health care agencies.


December 14-15, 2011
International Conference on Climate Change and Social Issues
Toulouse Business School and Institute of Human Development and Training
Colombo, Sri Lanka
Cost and Registration: $182, closes September 30
This conference will look at the social issues of climate change, including gender inequality, social justice, ethics, and human rights. Attendees will participate in group discussions, debate the global impacts of climate change, and form working groups to implement ongoing mitigation and adaptation strategies.

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8) Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

[The following job postings provided an overview of some selected openings in hazards-related fields. For more information on a particular job, please follow the links provided.]

Public Health Analyst (Regional Emergency Coordinator), GS-13
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
New York, New York
Salary: $92,259 to $119,935
Closing Date: September 28, 2011
This position will implement national public health emergency preparedness goals, policies, and plans regionally. Responsibilities include monitoring public health concerns, developing emergency preparedness reports and recommendations, and coordinating regional public health response. At least one year of experience at the GS-12 level and knowledge of the National Response Framework are required.


Deputy Director
University College London Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction
London, England
Salary: $55,019 to $64,945
Closing Date: September 30, 2011
This part-time position will develop a long-term strategy for the university’s new Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. Responsibilities include developing a master’s program within the institute and establishing mechanisms that allow legislators, professionals, and academics to share institute research. A PhD in a related field and disaster reduction research experience are required. Proficiency in foreign languages and publication in peer-reviewed journals are preferred.


Business Continuity and Resiliency Senior Analyst
Deloitte Office of Risk Services
Sydney, Australia
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will analyze business continuity practices, including crisis management and IT disaster recovery, policies and framework implementation, and teamwork. At least two years business continuity experience, the ability to work with diverse clientele, and crisis management training are required.


Emergency Management Director
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Salary: Commensurate with experience
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position is responsible for university preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery. Responsibilities include maintaining and implementing the university’s all-hazards emergency operation plan, coordinating staff, and overseeing volunteers. A bachelor’s degree in emergency management, six years of experience, and expert knowledge of the National Incident Management System and Incident Command System are required. A master’s degree is preferred.


Assistant Professor
University of Delaware School of Public Policy and Administration
Newark, Delaware
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This tenure-track position will teach courses in emergency and disaster management, as well as help develop the university’s planned graduate program in disaster science and management. A PhD in emergency or disaster management, public administration, geography, or sociology is required. Publications on emergency or disaster management, a strong record of external funding, and experience with postdisaster quick response studies are preferred.


Assistant Emergency Management Director
Washington Hospital Center Medstar Institute for Innovation
Washington, D.C.
Salary: Not posted
Closing Date: Open until filled
This position will coordinate national and regional efforts to advance emergency preparedness. Duties include overseeing various institute projects and maintaining Washington Hospital Center’s status as a best practice healthcare facility. A bachelor’s degree in public health or emergency management and at least seven years of healthcare education experience are required. A master’s degree and disaster management emphasis is strongly preferred.

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