NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

NMSU, LANL to study disaster preparedness in rural communities

Four New Mexico State University researchers have teamed up with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) to conduct research on community emergency preparedness through an online planning forum.

From left: Mike Coombs, Gerri McCulloh, Ken Hacker, and Chris Weaver discuss their research inside the PSL building on campus (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The team includes Mike Coombs of NMSU's Physical Science Laboratory, Ken Hacker, an NMSU communication studies professor, Gerri McCulloh, a graduate student in communication studies, Chris Weaver, a graduate student and scientist at PSL, Karen Verspoor, a computational linguist at LANL, and Chad Olinger, a physicist at LANL.

Together they will conduct a two-year study using the Internet to show how a community can plan and practice its emergency responses online. Their premise is that grassroots, "bottom-up" planning is an essential ingredient for an effective response to an emergency and a complement to a "top-down" approach involving professional first responders, Coombs said.

The researchers are interested in the complex issues involved in a community's response to a crisis or emergency: How are different issues such as water, food, fuel, care of neighbors in need, care of animals and protection of resources handled? How are tools and resources to survive acquired? How are sources of expertise in the community identified and accessed? How are dialogue, leaders and followers produced? As a survival plan is established, how are different roles identified and developed? How are emotion, conflict and varying personal agendas handled? When is it essential to have the support of professional emergency services?

Participants in a semi-rural, low-density housing community of approximately 120 homes in southern New Mexico will be asked to solve an emergency planning/recovery problem - an extended power outage - by posting to an online forum that will be established by the researchers. The community was selected because of its easy accessibility, widely spaced properties, equestrian/agricultural interests and access to the Internet. Research protocols prevent identifying the participants and exact location of the study.

The rationale for the study is that people learn to organize their behaviors as they share their perspectives on crises such as storms, fire damage or extended power outages. As they do so, they build a language for envisioning how an event might unfold, what their needs might be and how they might support each other for the best chances of survival.

"Communities generally have a deeper understanding of their capacity to survive an emergency better than professionals," said Coombs. "In the absence of such knowledge, there is a danger that professionals expend scarce resources in replacing unnecessarily fully functional responses."

Coombs said relevant, accurate posted information is of critical importance to rural communities where professional assistance is likely to be sparse. Such communities are likely to have unique cultural strengths that will be unknown to professional services, he said.

The researchers hope their findings can help a population faced with an emergency or crisis to react quickly, effectively and efficiently, with minimal communication - to be able to activate already prepared plans. There is currently no comprehensive body of experience in the United States of using Internet-based communication for community-level emergency planning. The team hopes it can help provide the tools that are needed to understand the social dimensions of emergency planning on the Internet and that this use of the medium as part of a multimedia government communication system can be optimized.