Disaster Response; the Public Info Officer’s Perspective (Part 1)

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Tank cars containing Bakken crude oil continue to burn near Adena Village, W. Va., Feb. 17, 2015, the day after 27 cars derailed. Photo information at bottom of post.

This is the first entry in a three-part series on what it’s like being deployed as a crisis incident public information officer. This entry covers the preparatory phase of incident response operations.

When I met up for coffee with my friend and colleague Thomas McKenzie a few weeks ago, his black backpack had a wavy, irregular white line around the bottom portion, stained with salt from a deployment he had just completed. Thomas is part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s elite Public Information Assist Team (PIAT), and he had just served as the public information officer for the incident management organization assembled in West Virginia to mitigate the damage from the derailment of a train transporting Bakken crude oil. Several cars of the train had exploded and burned after the accident, leaking oil into the environment, prompting evacuations, salvage and cleanup.

Days after Thomas and I spoke, another train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded, this time in Illinois. Initially, I wanted to write about the unique challenges communicators face during these types of incidents, but first I think I’ll paint a picture of what it’s like to be a deployable disaster public information officer (a job that Paul and I also had, not too long ago).

The PIAT is located in Norfolk, Va., and is unique in government in that the team’s primary mission is to deploy to incidents to help mitigate disaster with crisis and risk communication to internal and external audiences. The team specializes in incidents involving environmental pollution. When they’re not deployed, members of the team train, attend exercises and drills, maintain their gear and readiness and use their expertise to teach others to do crisis incident communication.

The members of this team exemplify what American crisis public information officers need to know before they deploy to an incident. More than just the specifics for the types of incidents to which you’ll respond, you need to know: safety (PIAT members undergo regular hazardous materials and incident response operations training); the basics of journalism; the ins-and-outs of social media use; the Incident Command System; how to work with traditional media; risk and crisis communication theory and practical application; the logistics of travel, particularly to remote locations; and, gosh, just how to take care of yourself when you’re far from the conveniences of home, working long hours in physically and mentally challenging situations.

This aerial view of the derailed cars, from a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil, near Adena Village, W. Va., show limited road access for first responders (near the middle of the frame) and the proximity of the Kanawha River (at the bottom of the frame). Photo information at bottom of post.

This aerial view of the derailed cars, from a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil, near Adena Village, W. Va., show limited road access for first responders (near the middle of the frame) and the proximity of the Kanawha River (at the bottom of the frame). Photo information at bottom of post.

The CSX train, transporting crude from North Dakota, was headed to Yorktown, Va., when it derailed about 30 miles from Charleston, W. Va., a stone’s throw from the banks of the Kanawha River, Monday, Feb. 16. Twenty-seven of the train’s 107 tank cars came off the tracks; several exploded and sent massive fireballs and columns of smoke into the air. One nearby home was destroyed by flames (you can see what’s left of it if you zoom in on the photo at left), and many others in the small village adjacent the accident site had to be evacuated. Eyewitness photos posted on social media quickly spread, and national news media were reporting the story within hours. More than a dozen tank cars caught fire, some burning for days, too hot for first responders to approach near enough to extinguish the flames. If that wasn’t a challenging enough situation for responders, the area was also in the midst of a blizzard when the accident happened, and deploying responders to the east were hampered by the storm as it moved toward the mid-Atlantic and Northeast coastline.

Because the accident occurred close to and threatened a navigable waterway with oil pollution, U.S. Coast Guard members were deployed to assume the role of federal on-scene coordinator and other management team positions. The parent command of Thomas’ team, the Coast Guard’s Incident Management Assistance Team (IMAT), was put on alert to deploy in the hours after the train derailed. On Tuesday, about 24 hours after the derailment, members of the IMAT and the PIAT boarded a Coast Guard C-130 to deploy to the scene; commercial travel was not a reliable option, due to the blizzard.

In an email follow-up to our conversation, Thomas wrote, “I got a group text telling me that I would be going, along with another team member (of the PIAT). Usually the ‘go’ text includes the name of a (point of contact) on the scene, the address and phone number of the nearest hotel and flight reservations. All four of my teammates can book flights, hotels and rental cars for each other. It saves a lot of time and brain power to have someone hand you the information you need and point you in the direction you need to go.”

Thomas and the other PIAT member grabbed some travel necessities, including minimal personal protective equipment and a pelican case – a “joint information center in a box” – complete with laptops, cell phones, field operations guides, still and video cameras. “Anything you’d need to set up an office in the middle of nowhere,” McKenzie said. Before landing in West Virginia, Thomas negotiated with the C-130 pilots to orbit the derailment site for a bird’s eye view.

McKenzie and team's ride from Norfolk, Va., to Charleston, W. Va., to deploy for the crude oil train derailment. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

McKenzie and team’s ride from Norfolk, Va., to Charleston, W. Va., to deploy for the crude oil train derailment. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

Thomas also told me in the follow-up email, “We bring the go-kit because it represents a lot of thinking you don’t have to do when you’re deploying. If you already have X, Y and Z packed, it’s easier than trying to think about grabbing these items on the fly. We have four of these kits, each of them identical down to the wire as to their contents, and they’re all inventoried once a quarter. When we come home from a trip, we swap out to the next kit and inventory the previous one; check the printer ink, update the drivers, format the memory cards in the cameras, the battery life, etc.” He added, “I also bring three books with me; the PIO guide, the National Incident Management System Joint Information Center model, and the Incident Management Handbook, because no matter how often I travel to responses or exercises I still haven’t memorized all the things I need to do when I get there.” Using field guides at a crisis incident is de rigueur for responders in all jobs at a command post, from operations to logistics to command.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll cover what it’s like for a public information officer once on-scene at the crisis incident, as McKenzie and team arrive at the incident command post to begin their work.

Both train car images from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s Flickr page. Used under Creative Commons license. The photos have not been altered; original images can be found here.

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