Preparing before a disaster

Cal Fire signs warning of potential wildfire risks/Sarah Stierch

How will you get, check, and share info

One of the most important things you can do in advance is to start to assess what role your news outlet might take on in a range of possible disasters or emergencies, and to start assessing your existing communications and community networks, resources, and capacity.

Whether developing an individual reporting go bag or developing a newsroom emergency source list and operations plan, putting aside time now to gather some existing supplies or review your publishing plan during an outage will make responding to difficult situations a little bit easier. This is also the case with identifying available safety training and developing good operational practices, such as keeping devices charged and source contact information updated. And the same is true for your readers — figuring out how they get urgent information, and sharing with them information about how to prepare and stay informed during emergencies can help you and your community prepare.

Questions to ask before a disaster

  • What kinds of emergencies are possible in your area?
  • How will you get information about what is happening? 
  • How will you share information about what is happening?
  • How can your newsroom and community prepare now?


  • Scenarios with multiple or cascading emergencies: what happens if there is a fire, and a widespread outage?
  • How you receive, verify, and share information with multiple audiences when communications infrastructure might be impacted: how can you meet people where they are at?
  • Your current workflow and resources: what training, equipment, and practices do you need to stay safe?

Steps to take now

  • Talk with local emergency responders and officials
    • identify how to best quickly receive, verify and share information
    • identify what is the official emergency response plan
    • identify appropriate safety gear and training
  • Talk with community and audience(s)
    • identify how to best quickly receive, verify and share information
    • identify how your community accesses info and what they need to know 
    • build relevant emergency info resources
  • Talk with coworkers about workplace protocols, resources, and plans

Training and practice

Identifying available trainings through public safety or emergency agencies in your area is a useful addition to preparing for an emergency, although you may need to arrange an individual training for your newsroom. Some agencies, such as Cal Fire, have specific media training available for covering wildfires, or there may be an emergency operations coordinator at your city or county that is available to advise, or recordings of earlier emergency preparedness events that you can review. The Small Business Administration near you may also have emergency training available designed for business managers that could be useful to your newsroom. 

If your news outlet has the resources, you may also want to consider additional training such as wildland firefighter training, getting certified to become a ham radio operator, joining a community emergency response team, or attending a public information officer course. These are typically not designed for media but will allow you to have additional emergency skills and insight into the emergency response processes that occur during a disaster.

Setting aside time for practicing different aspects of your emergency response plan with your entire team is an essential part of preparation, since it will not only help you respond more quickly when needed, but help you identify gaps in your plan or ways you may want to improve. Particularly since disasters can lead to unexpected impacts and chaotic or life-threatening situations, you will want to be practiced and familiar with basic workflows and communications protocols in advance. This should include a designated portioning of onboarding for all new team members to become familiar with the emergency plan, and a regular schedule for newsroom training and updating the plan.

How journalists can help their community prepare for disasters

Meeting your audience where they are is essential during emergencies since people often do not have time to process vital information at the same speed they would when it’s not an emergency. People need accessible, accurate info in disaster situations, often with limited connectivity. Providing your audience with useful information to navigate emergencies will help build relationships and trust for other coverage, and can be updated as new needs or circumstances emerge. Providing useful coverage during a disaster can establish your newsroom as a trusted source. Being a trusted source can bring in new audiences, collaboration opportunities, and could also potentially be a source of new revenue through building ongoing relationships.

Preparing your newsroom and your audience

Not all newsrooms have the capacity to cover breaking news when disaster strikes — but if you are considering how to prepare as an individual reporter or newsroom leader, there are many parallel strategies that not only can help your community prepare but can also be integrated into your ongoing coverage, making your outlet and community more resilient. 

It can also make coverage during a disaster easier if you create resources such as easily referenceable information guides or local context for your audience ahead of time. This will reduce the amount of new information and learning curve for staff during times of confusion and panic, and create more efficient internal workflows during fast-changing situations.

This reporting can include immediately actionable information, such as where and how to sign up for the relevant emergency notifications in your area, and what a “declaration of emergency” means. But you should also consider broader reporting, such as places to connect with resources or volunteer opportunities, the development of your local community emergency response plans, or how agencies are responding – or not – to the impacts of climate change in your region.  

Many of the same types of things that will be helpful to prepare as a newsroom or individual reporter are also helpful for your audience to learn about as well. These might include building a go bag and knowing evacuation routes, being up to date on insurance policies and safety training, signing up for emergency alerts and understanding different levels of warnings, and learning about the history of previous disasters in the region and local active mutual aid groups. 

Developing an emergency source list and reporting ideas

As you’re developing an emergency source list and maps for your newsroom, talk to official sources and identify relevant data as a way to find existing issues your community might be facing when a disaster hits. Talking with community members and subject matter experts will help you understand what questions and concerns they may have. You may want to consider conducting community listening sessions or surveys to see what questions your readers have about how to prepare or respond to a disaster to inform coverage and determine immediate needs and preferred platforms for your communities. 

Many local jurisdictions may not have a dedicated emergency manager, but they will have a local emergency plan. That’s one way to understand the official hazards, risks, potential emergencies, and response strategies for your area. These plans are periodically reviewed and updated in a public process with public comment, providing another way to help your audience understand and engage with local emergency response. 

Additional roles for disaster coverage

Other vital roles that local reporters can play for their communities include learning how to understand and clearly explain complex data, precise technical terms, and the emergency response system overall. Tracking more complex topics such as budgets or grants used for contracts for emergency preparedness can open up opportunities for more enterprise, accountability and investigative coverage before and after disasters. Starting this kind of coverage in advance will also help identify useful data tools or future special projects.

One common theme that often emerges amid a disaster is that people need help navigating the various official information sources to know how to apply or understand them. Figuring out whether the road to the shelter is open or how to sign up for text alerts or understand warnings. How to track deadlines, eligibility, and apply for emergency food benefits is often opaque and complex even during calmer times. 

Historically underserved communities are often already left out or ineligible for official programs. They may also be less able to connect to official communication channels during emergencies or left out of translations of that vital information. They are also not often considered in other types of accessibility and are more likely to suffer ongoing impacts after disasters. Identifying what ways your newsroom can reach, connect with, and help different communities prepare in advance will improve your coverage and diversity of sources overall, and help you identify different information needs that could arise. This could range from unhoused communities caught outside in storms to non-English speakers excluded from emergency alerts, for which your outlet can play an essential role in facilitating access to crucial and potentially life-saving information.

Here are some topics to consider, including editorial examples:

Explainers or enterprise coverage:
Evergreen guides to help prepare your community:
  • Data if easily available/depending on tech, i.e. map of current fires in state.  Example: Lost Coast Outpost’s Quakebot
Additional actions to consider:
  • Create reusable templates or content, info boxes, data tools, or other frequently repeated or referenced information for ongoing coverage on a specific topic or during an emergency. Examples: YubaNet’s “Fire News” landing page, Cabin Radio’s wildfire map 
  • Consider what partnerships and collaborations might be useful for sharing existing preparedness information to allow for resources to be allocated for more original reporting. Example: Mendocino Voice “Six steps to prepare from the Fire Safe Council
  • Create an explainer for your audience about how you intend to cover disasters and how they can reach you. Examples: Honolulu Civil Beat’s “Our Maui coverage is just beginning