This is the second entry in a three-part series on what it’s like being deployed as a crisis incident public information officer. The first entry covered the preparatory phase of incident response operations, and this one covers what it’s like once on-scene at a particular incident.
Public information officer Thomas McKenzie and crew immediately reported to the incident command post after landing in a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 at a nearby airfield. The command post was in a firehouse in Montgomery, W. Va. McKenzie was greeted by the initial public information officer, who said, “Oh good, you’re here – come with me.” No doubt happy to be relieved of the job, he took McKenzie for an in-brief and a scheduled operations meeting that was about to begin. Thomas immediately went to work to organize the on-scene Coast Guard and CSX communicators into a joint information center. There had been, “a bottleneck for all the media calls,” coming into the command post and, “simple (media) needs were not being met,” McKenzie said.
While he was working through the challenges of organizing the team, and making sure facts were being gathered, verified and released in a timely manner, he also was considering the operational challenges of the disaster. Train cars were still on fire, an evacuation order was still in place, road access to the site was minimal for responders and specific data on the train’s product was still forthcoming.
In my last post I mentioned the salt that stained the bag that Thomas brought with him for our coffee date after this deployment: it was from the road and sidewalk salt that was tracked into every working space and vehicle that responders occupied, meaning that anything placed on the wet, salty floor would just suck it up. The area had been in the midst of a blizzard at the same time of the crude oil train derailment.
The joint information center operated with between five and nine people, out of an RV-style response vehicle parked adjacent to the command post at the firehouse, in a sea of first responder vehicles that lined both sides of the street for hundreds of yards in either direction. Media calls were coming in through a sole toll free number operated by the railroad, and news releases were distributed via CSX’s website.
Some social media updates were going out via the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, and its communications director, as well as the local water authority, the state department of environmental protection, the governor’s officer and CSX. There was never a unified social media channel, but many adopted the #wvderail hashtag that was being used by the media, local citizens and activist groups.
— Lawrence Messina (@lmessina) February 21, 2015
The first unified, joint agency news release for the incident was disseminated on the third day, via one of the Coast Guard’s online public information channels (and further disseminated via Coast Guard and other agency social media channels). Thomas’ job as the public information officer was to persuade everyone in the incident management organization to speak with one voice – both within the cell that comprised the joint information center, and within the unified command. Joint news releases, media availabilities and unified communication channels help achieve this. He was also fighting a battle to promote transparency of information, and thought that unified use of social media could have been better.
On the third day of response operations, his team was faced with communicating issues that including re-railing train cars, fires that were re-flashing sporadically, evacuees returning to their homes near the derailment site and local rumors about oil from the spill entering the Kanawha River and spreading far from the accident site. Later, the communication team had to deal with cleanup issues, like oil freezing in the ice and snow on the ground and near the river, as well as ongoing air monitoring for the previously evacuated area and strategies for keeping spilled oil out of the river.
— Marcus Constantino (@amtino) February 22, 2015
By the fourth day of response operations, the joint information center had grown to nine members, from the various agencies represented in the incident management organization. Two days later, McKenzie helped organize the first and only on-site media briefing with the unified command, then demobilized from the incident and handed off public information officer duties to a replacement. He returned to Norfolk to complete after action duties and prepare for the next incident or training event.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll focus on the public information officer lessons learned from this deployment.