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Communication is is an invaluable tool for emergency management. In the mix of public and commercial clattering, messaging has to be clear, quick, appealing, instructive and effective at the cost of lives lost if unsuccessful. Who is responsible? In more and more communities, an autonomous Department of Emergency Management (DEM) provides a vital link.

So when we were approached a year or so ago by the San Juan County DEM we were excited to be part of an important effort. These graphics needed to speak broadly to an isolated island-vulnerable community in Northwest Washington and our challenge was to fuse words and graphics together into a meaningful and high-performance dialogue.

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But like the child who avoids the chastising parent, it was likely that a citizen might avoid hearing the truth and stepping up to meet the demands of disaster preparedness. Few among us spontaneously wake on a Saturday morning thinking, “Hmm, perhaps today I’ll gather all that I need in case of a disaster.” So, along with the DEM, we developed a graphics program that added a little fun to the challenge.

Sometimes the distance between safety and all-hell-breaking-loose can be very close. We developed graphic symbols to explain possible scenarios, and put them into not-so-serious contexts.

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Think of it this way—a storyteller leads listeners into a cautionary tale with some levity (perhaps a joke) but invariably the tale they tell examines a world undergoing transformative, and sometimes undesirable, change. Instead of overwhelming an audience with hard facts, humor helps to diffuse the potential impact and gets people thinking. Know the risks, make a plan, get your supplies. When it launched, the graphic program created a bit of a buzz with t-shirt designs that became walking billboards for the DEM. The sinking ship or burning bunny are edgy, but they never lose touch with reality.

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This summer, we followed up with a new campaign, dipping into the absurd with a “What if?” series for the DEM. Aliens are attacking the lighthouse! Zombies are going after your sheep! Our island-dwelling audience may be still laughing but we’re hopeful they’re also busy putting together their survival kits.

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