GAO: Web is no cure-all for DOD pandemic communications

The Defense Department should not rely too heavily on the Web to keep service members and their families informed during an outbreak of avian flu or other diseases, according to the Government Accountability Office.

According to the GAO, should an outbreak occur, the department plans to direct personnel to the Pandemic Influenza Watchboard for messages from DOD officials, information on DOD policies for dealing with pandemic situations, and links to other Web sites for updates on health precautions and related information.

A DOD official told GAO that the department would direct personnel and military health system providers to use the Web site "as the primary DOD platform" for messages and information on an influenza pandemic, the report states.

Other components of the department, including Health Affairs and the Joint Staff, also have Web sites where they will post information for their constituents.

But GAO cautions DOD officials against making the Web a linchpin of their communications strategy because it is too passive an approach for dealing with a pandemic crisis. "Using multiple methods -- both active and passive -- of sharing information on what actions to take in the event of an influenza pandemic will be useful," the report states.

For example, DOD officials should give more thought to how they will share information with service members deployed in rural environments where Internet access is limited.

DOD officials should also tailor their messages to the audience. For example, employees deemed critical and immediately eligible to receive vaccines and antiviral medication need to know where to pick up those supplies.

"Conversely, employees in the lower tiers for vaccine and antiviral distribution will need to be told that they will need to rely on other resources to obtain these treatments, such as HHS’ Strategic National Stockpile or other state and local public health sources," the report states.

In any case, DOD must keep its Web sites up to date as its pandemic plans change. It also should fill in gaps in the information it has posted, according to the report.

For example, one site suggested that people make it a practice to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, but "there was no information on what personnel should do specifically in the event of an influenza pandemic," the report states. The site does not indicate in what circumstance employees should telework from home, nor does it say how people should know whether to seek medical treatment.

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