Disaster Response; the Public Info Officer’s Perspective (Part 3)

Response crews for the West Virginia train derailment continue to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River, Feb. 18, 2015. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon, Feb. 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Angie Vallier)

Response crews for the West Virginia train derailment continue to monitor the burning of the derailed rail cars near Mount Carbon next to the Kanawha River, Feb. 18, 2015. The West Virginia Train Derailment Unified Command continues to work with federal, state and local agencies on the response efforts for the train derailment that occurred near Mount Carbon, Feb. 15, 2015. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Angie Vallier)

This is the third 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 the second covered what it’s like once on-scene at an incident. This entry focuses on lessons learned from the incident.

What did my friend Thomas McKenzie, incident public information officer for the recent West Virginia crude oil train derailment, think went well, and what did he think could have been improved, during his six-day deployment?

If you read previous parts of this phenomenology on crisis public information officers, you’ll remember that McKenzie and the rest of the crew from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Public Information Assist Team and Incident Management Assistance Team arrived on scene about 24 hours after the accident. McKenzie immediately took over public information officer duties and went about organizing human resources into a joint information center, responsible for gathering, verifying and communicating incident information to internal and external audiences.

In no particular order, here are some of his lessons learned; some for things that went well and some for things with room for improvement (notes in italics are my own thoughts on what Thomas conveyed to me for each point after his deployment):

  • Some agencies that were part of the unified command had a strong desire for on-scene imagery to be released to the media and public, while others were against this for various reasons.

Typically, release of imagery from the responders (who can safely get closer to accident sites) helps promote transparency of information. The Coast Guard had one photo release, the governor’s office put quite a few on-scene photos on his Flickr page and a few state agencies released site photos here and there via social media.

  • The unified command worked with the local water utility on safety issues, but the joint information center did not work directly with their counterparts at the utility.

In a perfect world, everyone disseminating public information about a particular incident would be in contact with each other, at least virtually – avoiding mixed messages helps the affected public. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and this is often easier said than done! (i.e., “Been there ….”)

  • Initially, there was no heat in the working spaces (not good, when you’re in the midst of sub-zero temperatures!), but McKenzie said, “There was a soft-spoken guy who kept coming in, making the place better (each time),” (i.e., bringing in space heaters, solving network issues, etc.).

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (OK, San Francisco) I submitted a completed ICS-213RR (that’s a “resource request,” for the non-ICS-geeks) that simply read “heat” in block 4.e. Climate control, food, water, etc., become increasingly important as the hours of a response operation turn into days, weeks or months.

Weather wasn't just a factor for McKenzie's team to get on scene, but affected how they traveled while deployed. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

Weather wasn’t just a factor for McKenzie’s team to get on scene, but affected how they traveled while deployed. Photo courtesy of Thomas McKenzie.

  • There was only one restaurant in town, so the logistics of adequate food was a challenge. Luckily, McKenzie said that the command post always had food on hand for response workers.

Many people at crisis responses become so focused on their work that they (try to) forego the basics of human survival: food, hydration, etc. You may not get much rest at a crisis incident, but you can’t “drive the car on an empty gas tank.”

  • Incident responders “took over” the firehouse when it became the command post, but everyone adhered to the “mutual respect” for others, which is common in the disaster management realm. McKenzie said people completely filled the building, but made do as needed – having conversations or taking phone calls in stairwells, conducting informal meetings in the parking lot, etc.

Command post life, 101.

  • Limited access to the accident site for the media, and access issues for first responders and the public, who shared a single narrow road – with nowhere to turn around – to get to or past the site.

This incident’s “hot zone” was both figurative and literal during the first few days of operations. Safety issues and OSHA requirements can often mean that access to an accident is limited to individuals who have a need to be there and are qualified to work in the environment.

 

 

  • Shifting the main online space for releasing incident news from the railroad’s, to the Coast Guard’s, then finally to a state agency’s site, and adequately publicizing those changes with the media and public stakeholders.

This happens for many incidents. Having a dedicated joint-agency site is preferred, but someone has to “own it” before, during and after high-tempo operations. The danger with using multiple sites to put out official information is that affected people get confused about where to find what they need. I followed the story as it unfolded in the first week and noticed lots of “stovepipes” of information, without much “love” being given from agency to agency – I had to check 4-5 different sites for news releases and monitor about a dozen agency (or agency official) social media accounts for official information, and little of it was being shared (with a few exceptions) via re-posts or retweets. Need help using social media during a crisis? Here are 10 great tips.

  • Acquiring a dedicated phone line in the joint information center for media inquiries. McKenzie stressed that during the time the joint information center didn’t have a dedicated landline it was: 1) difficult to accurately monitor media interest (i.e., from what would have been taken in through inquiries, such as the who, what and where of media members); 2) a burden for one person to consistently field all media inquiries (via cell), instead of being able to assign someone to answering the phone; 3) impossible to “share the wealth” amongst the agencies represented, so no one agency member was fielding all calls; and, 4) difficult to maintain an accurate call log of media inquiries.

Even in this day and age, the media needs some way to conduct dialogue with those people who have the facts – email can be a burden for responders and social media just doesn’t have the power that a dedicated landline possesses. Dedicated cell phones can work, too, but they’re like the dedicated news websites – someone has to “own it” before, during and after operations.

  • Participating agencies released information on their own during the first 24 hours of operations, without unity of effort – but McKenzie said that was fine, because all the information was accurate and agreed with other releases.

Don’t know if this was through sheer luck or because of a group of well-disciplined communicators; the takeaway is that you should know everyone you’ll work with in a crisis before it happens, and know how to get hold of them to collaborate when it hits the fan. Paul covered this in his Crisis Comms 101 series last year.

  • Workdays were contingent on the operational schedule of the incident management organization, which was setup so that the public information officer and joint information staff worked 13-hour days.

Incident response operations aren’t your routine 9-to-5, so plan accordingly!

  • McKenzie noted that the media was using some of the released key messages verbatim, but he said it was a challenge to accurately measure how well overall the affected public was receiving messages.
  • The joint information center played the “numbers game” for everything from how much oil spilled to how many people were heeding the evacuation order at any given time. It’s tough to stick with a single number (of gallons of oil, households currently evacuated, people who have returned home) when fluctuations of what is being reported are frequent.

It’s a game you can’t win if you’re an incident public information officer; know that people can take the bad news, and it’s better to say, “It’s not as bad as we thought,” than to say, “It’s a lot worse than we thought,” after-the-fact.

  • Finally, even days after the blizzard had hit the area, travel delays abounded throughout the impacted mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. region. This meant demobilization and return to base required driving the rental car back to Norfolk, instead of waiting days for the next available flight.

2 thoughts on “Disaster Response; the Public Info Officer’s Perspective (Part 3)

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