Updated July 29, 2021
The dynamics of a natural disaster or extreme weather event are fluid and threats can materialize quickly. Journalists should research the potential risks associated with the event they are covering and prepare accordingly.
- General safety guidance
- Volcanic eruptions
- Extreme heat
To minimize the risks, media workers should consider the following safety advice:
General safety guidance
- Understand the risk context of where the event has taken or is taking place. If in a conflict zone or area with weak law enforcement, the potential for a deterioration in general security is always a risk.
- Local circumstances and conditions will dictate movement and travel plans. If possible, speak to as many journalists, aid agencies or locals in the region about the current situation, and plan accordingly.
- Identify any prisons or zoos in the affected area, noting that inmates or wildlife may have escaped as a result of damaged buildings or fencing.
- Depending on the location you may need to take a significant amount of cash. If so, divide cash into smaller amounts and distribute among team members. Be creative about where you hide the cash.
- Find out if any specialist personal protective equipment (PPE) is required to report safely (e.g. breathing apparatus).
- Ensure your insurance plan provides coverage for the specific circumstances, and check that medevac providers will be able to assist if required.
- Individuals should be fit and agile enough to cope with challenging and at times oppressive conditions
- Consider any health conditions and necessary medication, noting that health services may be non-existent and/or overwhelmed in areas.
- Individuals should not be expected to work alone when covering extreme weather and natural disaster events. Working with a trusted local fixer/guide who knows the area and terrain is sensible.
- Witnessing scenes of destruction and/or death can be upsetting. Always consider the risk of secondary trauma or PTSD. See CPJ’s psychological safety note for more information.
- Communication networks may be disrupted or completely down. If legal to do so take a satellite phone as a backup form of communication
- Check in with local emergency services / persons in authority to get local safety and security advice.
- Ensure you put in place a check-in procedure, especially if reporting from remote locations or areas where civil disorder and looting has broken out
- A deteriorating situation may necessitate a change of plans. Plan and communicate an emergency exit route with your base and notify them about any changes to your journey plan.
Clothing & equipment
Ensure you are self-sufficient if not supported by aid agencies. Being fully equipped is essential, but it can be a balance between being fully prepared and the weight of the equipment. Items to consider include:
- A Disaster Supplies Kit, which could include a portable radio, flashlights and a head torch (with spare batteries), non-perishable foods, cooking equipment, a tent, appropriate sleeping bag, a multi-tool and can opener. Also bring a decent amount of cash to pay for things on the ground.
- A fully stocked first aid kit. Add extra sterilizing wipes, gel, or cream for cuts and scrapes. Include a full stock of personal medication, ensuring it is legal in the country.
- Good quality face masks (ideally N95 grade or higher), which should be worn when there is a high level of destruction. If hazardous chemicals or materials (e.g. asbestos) are a risk, then specialist breathing apparatus should be worn.
- Clothing that is appropriate to the specific weather event (e.g. sturdy footwear with ankle support).
- Folding jerry cans that can be used for storing water or fuel. Be mindful of the dangers of storing fuel.
- Iodine tablets or a portable water purification system. Water is essential and if you can carry in a supply, do so. However, this is not always feasible. Identify a safe source of water as soon as possible and always maintain a stockpile.
- Several days’ supply of non-perishable food. Ready-to-eat meals can be heavy to carry, but they are a practical solution for areas where it may be hard to source food.
- Portable lighting and the necessary power source. The latter should preferably be solar powered. Journalists with a lot of kit to run may need to consider purchasing a portable generator.
- Upon arrival, quickly identify accommodation that is as secure as possible and a safe distance from the event/disaster.
- Check the accommodation has not been damaged, and avoid staying in high rise properties if possible.
- Some locations may be cut off and only accessible by helicopters or light aircraft. Ensure that your insurance policy covers you to fly in such transport and that you use reputable and licensed suppliers.
- Have access to good transportation in case you need to leave quickly. Do not rely on taxis. Vehicles should be appropriate for the conditions (e.g. high ground clearance, robust and equipped).
- Always park your vehicle in the direction of escape so that you can extract quickly.
Positioning & awareness
- Local people affected will likely be upset and/or angry. Always seek permission before filming or photographing them and/or their property. If they say no, leave your details so they can contact you.
- Do not rely on GPS, and note there may only be limited landmarks to help orientate yourself.
- Keep up to date with weather forecasts during the assignment and maintain a flexible itinerary.
- Listen to the advice of the emergency response teams and avoid getting in their way.
- Gas and electrical infrastructure may be damaged. Avoid lighting fires or smoking in damaged buildings.
Disaster-specific safety advice
Media workers should avoid entering flood water that is fast flowing or where the ground is obscured due to a number of potential hazards, which may include: sinkholes; missing manhole covers; open sewers; ditches; waterborne wildlife; untreated sewage; and submerged obstacles.
- Keep a safe distance from walls and buildings, which could be structurally damaged
- Remain vigilant to sudden waves or water surges.
- Be aware that standing water can spread infectious diseases and contain chemical hazards.
- Never drive a vehicle close to or into flood water, and be mindful of weakened bridges etc.
- If in an area with a history of landmines be aware that they can move around due to flooding.
- If close to a tidal river or the coast check on tide times and allow time to get to higher ground.
- Thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands before touching your face, eating, drinking, or smoking
- Do not expose open wounds to the water due to the risk of infection.
- Thoroughly clean all equipment, clothing, and footwear after use.
Never underestimate the speed, power, and destructive nature of a wildfire. Even small fires can rapidly escalate and spread due to dry conditions, high temperatures, and prevailing winds. Note that fires typically progress in the direction of the ambient wind, so always pay attention to wind direction and reposition accordingly.
Please refer to CPJ’s detailed safety note about covering wildfires on the ground.
Hurricanes / cyclones / typhoons / tornadoes
Hurricanes and storm winds can damage property, uproot infrastructure, and create flying debris, as well as disrupt communications, power supplies, and transport.
- If wind speeds increase, seek shelter immediately and avoid going outside.
- Keep away from large glass windows and corrugated sheet roofs in storm conditions.
- Be aware of treacherous driving conditions — in cross winds vehicles are harder to control.
- Plan journeys taking into account that some bridges and routes may be closed in high winds.
- Consider the risks posed by potential flooding (see Flooding section above).
- It is advisable for individuals with respiratory issues to avoid deploying due to the risk of harmful gases (e.g. carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, radon, hydrogen chloride).
- Choose a location away from volcanic clouds and work with others to warn of changing conditions.
- Be aware of wind direction changing, which may spread harmful gases and ash further afield.
- Wear clothes that are made from natural flame-resistant fibers.
- Limit your time in the danger zone, and remember that visibility may suddenly reduce without warning due to fog, cloud, rain, volcanic fumes, or nightfall.
- Remain alert to the dangers from larger rocks and boulders which can be ejected up to three miles from the eruption site, often at high velocity.
- Remain vigilant to warning signs of further eruptions / volcanic activity.
- If driving in an earthquake, stop a safe distance from structures or infrastructure that could collapse or fall. Stay in the vehicle and be aware of people getting in to try and escape.
- Be aware of hazards like sinkholes, collapsed infrastructure, broken electrical cables or gas lines, unstable structures, broken glass etc.
- If close to the coast or tidal river consider the risk of a tsunami. Monitor for any signs of unnatural changes in sea levels, and have a plan to get inland and to higher ground quickly.
- Be prepared for aftershocks. If in a building, drop down and take cover under a table. Stay away from furniture that can fall on you. When safe to, turn off all heat sources and extinguish naked flames. Don’t light a match or use a lighter, and only leave when you’re sure it’s safe to do so.
- Be alert to the risks from potential flooding (see Flooding section above).
Landslides / mudslides
- Operate at a safe distance. Any slide is likely to be unstable and liable to additional movement.
- Do not operate in areas that could be susceptible to a secondary slide or avalanche.
- Be alert for sounds that might indicate further activity, such as falling rocks or trees cracking.
- Pay attention to water flow, and water level and the color, which may indicate activity upstream.
- Be aware of the dangers from damaged buildings and infrastructure, including electrical masts.
- Be alert to the risks from potential flooding (see Flooding section above).
- If feasible, factor in a period for acclimatization for deploying media workers.
- Try to avoid working in the extreme heat of the day (between 12:00-15:00). Identify or provide shade for regular breaks and use it at every opportunity.
- Wear a sun hat and light, natural fiber/moisture wicking loose-fitting clothing.
- Keep well hydrated throughout. Take rehydration salts and use them early if symptoms of dehydration appear (e.g. profuse sweating, headaches, thirst, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, fainting, pale skin, rapid heartbeat and dark urine).
- Have a buddy system in place for simple checks, noting that an individual’s condition can deteriorate very quickly.
- Regularly check urine color and aim to keep it a light color. If urine starts to darken, drink more fluids including rehydration salts.
- Heat exhaustion is a serious condition that may become life threatening. If signs appear, act promptly and immediately by moving the individual to a cooler place.
- Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition. Individuals can present with a raised body temperature, rapid pulse and breathing, disorientation, confusion, unconsciousness, and seizure. It’s essential to lower the body temperature as quickly as possible and seek immediate medical assistance.
For additional information and tools for pre-assignment preparation and post-incident assistance, visit CPJ’s Resource Center.