Friday, October 17, 2014

Ebola: Insuring Communications Sector Is at the Table

By Deborah Taylor Tate

On September 18, 2008, I was very proud to provide opening remarks at the first Summit on Pandemic Preparedness. It wasn’t held at the CDC, it was held at the FCC with a huge cross-section of first responders, communications entities, and healthcare professionals. I was so proud to have had a part in focusing on the importance of the communications/media sector in discussing and planning for the potential of a “pandemic” – something most Americans had not yet focused on. In my remarks, I stated:

“As compared to hurricanes, pandemics pose unique communications challenges. Instead of fleeing from a city with severely damaged communications capabilities, in a pandemic our citizens may be sheltering at home, trying to stay in touch with their friends and family and even working – with the possibility that half the workforce will be working remotely – this will place significant demands on an undamaged but nonetheless over-burdened communications network.  How we plan for and respond to such an emergency requires creative thinking by government and industry health and network engineers, which is why I’m pleased to see so many experts here from such a cross-section of genres.”

Thus, today, from my perch as Citizen Tate, I am extremely concerned about the leadership in our present Ebola crisis. This is just the sort of pandemic that I, along with many others, was concerned about in 2008 – over six years ago. And, it’s precisely why the FCC hosted such a discussion so that we would indeed involve all the stakeholders, across a broad spectrum of health, education, communications, media, and public safety participants. And, to plan ahead for a potential future crisis – knowing that we would probably be facing one – rather than in the midst of one.

I hope both the FCC and our ICT partners are dusting off those crisis plans so that if there are strains on our communications system, we will be able to insure prompt, correct, and helpful information is conveyed and that workers will be able to continue to propel this economic engine even during a pandemic whether it hits a locality or region or – God forbid – our entire nation.

And, our broadcasters – and all media – can play an integral role; not in hyper-emotionalizing the issue but in providing basic, simple habits for cleanliness and health safety for the public and even using age appropriate content. In addition, they can be extremely helpful in providing links to healthcare assistance, FAQs on their websites, and even reassuring mental health messages rather than the sensationalism of a very present danger. But one that can be controlled and hopefully resolved.

I am proud of the FCC for recognizing, raising, and planning for the possibility of a pandemic and am hopeful that other federal health officials will follow that lead soon. Especially important is the recognition that these integral providers of communications services must be part of any solution.

Last week Senator Lamar Alexander, Ranking Member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, met with infectious disease experts at Vanderbilt Medical Center to hear directly from healthcare experts on the Ebola issue. He stated that Ebola should be considered “as serious a threat as ISIL.” And, it should.

Whether the common flu or our present Ebola outbreak, our leaders certainly needed to follow the Boy Scouts motto much earlier so that we – as a nation – would indeed “Be Prepared.”

My last sentence in that 2008 speech was almost clairvoyant:

“I pray we will never need to deploy in response to another U.S. tragedy, but being prepared is our first and best defense.”