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Anthrax and Aircrash

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One of the most frequently expressed mantras in the social media for emergency response world is; “Engage before the big one, or you will be irrelevant.”  So what does that mean?  It is fairly easy – but time consuming – to monitor and respond to messages/notes that involve you and/or your agency during routine business.  But what about “routine” emergencies?

 This week I was co-teaching an ICS 300 course when I was called to consult via phone on a potential haz-mat incident at our county courthouse.  Court staff had opened a letter containing a white granular powder and note saying it was anthrax.  The staff did the right thing;  they isolated the letter in a bio-hazard bag, notified leadership, shut down the HVAC system and called 911.

 My assistant chief filled me in on the details; one of our engine company crews was sizing up the situation,  haz-mat team leaders were called to size up the threat, potentially exposed employees were isolated, and the building HVAC system was shut down.  “Perfect” I thought to myself as I returned to the classroom.  Likely no big deal.

 Thennnnn….. I get another call.  The courthouse is being evacuated, and the FBI has been called to the scene.  Uh-Oh.. This has now gone “high profile”.  Luckily, my co-instructor was teaching and I was able to excuse myself.

 On my arrival, a couple hundred employees were streaming from the building (many on cell phones or texting), surrounding roads were shut down, and the haz-mat and fire rigs were strategically, and highly visibly parked in front of the courthouse. After making sure all of us senior executive types had re-acquainted ourselves and agreed that my department would maintain Command, my attention was pulled away by a public health colleague well versed in #SMEM usage – “Who’s doing messaging on this?”  I blew him off….

 What?  An evangelist for emergency response public information and social media usage ignored this question?  Yep. At least for a few minutes.  As usual, a high profile event creates tremendous pressure to get information out about what was happening.  But, we needed to make sure the information we released did not compromise FBI investigative efforts. As the Command Aide, I checked in with the special agent and confirmed some basic facts that could be shared without screwing up their work.  I touched base with the County Executive’s office to determine what information they had already released.  I then sent a quick tweet;

My IC then assigned the public health colleague as the PIO.  Within a couple of minutes, we accomplished the following;

  1. Agreed we needed to send out a few quick SM messages saying the situation was stable, no one was in immediate danger, we were moving deliberately and safely, and an investigation/intelligence gathering was underway by the FBI.
  2. Agreed there was no need to vet this information through the IC prior to posting.
  3. Decided to use his personal Twitter account to post info, and add my Twitter address so the information would be picked up by all of the local and regional media sources who already follow my Twitter account.
  4. Determine later if we needed to issue a formal media release.

 My initial tweet was quickly retweeted by local media. The PIO added a couple more over the next 20 minutes, but was pretty much consumed with on scene interviews.  Watching him artfully shepard the photographers and reporters, I noted there was no way he was going to be able to monitor and respond to multiple messages over multiple platforms.

 Therein lies the problem.  Who has time to sit around and send/answer tweets and update Facebook pages?  As SM disciples, we talk about the need to engage and build our online presence so we will be the “go to” place for information during crisis.  But, this takes focused resources and attention.  In the early stages of an emergency response, these resources likely won’t be available, especially in smaller jurisdictions like mine.   

I think it is time for a reality check in setting expectations on PIO SM use during emergencies.  I offer the following ideas:

  • Someone has to initially look at what is being said on SM-Twitter during a high profile event, and a quick message posted about the nature, severity and necessary immediate public action steps. This can buy time.
  • With that said, given the time it takes additional ICS and support personnel to arrive, get briefed and organized it may take a while before additional SM messaging and engagement can begin.
  • LOOK AT THE CROWD.  Are they all using their phones?  If so, you know the rumor mill has started.
  • If agencies are involved that could roll into forming Unified Command (domestic terrorism, haz-mat), be sensitive to the type and method of info distribution early on.  It is too easy to send out a tweet that could compromise initial investigative efforts or their messaging efforts.
  • The PIO function should now be staffed with a minimum of two people – the PIO and an assistant.  The PIO organizes the messaging and herds the media cats, leaving the assistant to focus on SM monitoring and engagement.  This should be considered on all highly visible events, regardless of size.  This doesn’t mean you have to have both people at the ICP/scene.  An assistant PIO tasked with SM engagement can do so from the comfort of their easy chair at home (my preferred work station) or office. One caveat – you need to have reliable communications directly to the ICP/PIO to coordinate messaging.

 As I wrote this last night, I was closely monitoring the emergency response efforts and aftermath of the Reno Air Race crash.  It seemed it was only 30 minutes or so after the crash that the first You Tube video was posted showing the crash and aftermath. The #IAMOK hashtag was being used by SM savy spectators, and the twitter stream was going nuts.  I also was able to listen to the first 45 minutes of the ICS radio traffic.  In my humble opinion, the Medical Branch Director on this big mess demonstrated outstanding command presence on the radio, using a reassuring and calming tone and clear direction to initiate triage, order and organize incoming EMS units, and ensure the orderly transport of patients.  Job well done sir. 

 

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Comments - Add Yours

  • http://sahnetaeter.wordpress.com sahnetaeter

    Hey! This is a really great post! I agree with every word! Only I doubt that one assistant is enough…

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Thanks! You are right about 1 assistant not being enough. But, often we have a hard time even getting 1 assistant!

  • http://humanityroad.org Christine Thompson

    This is an excellent summary and a terrific case study of the use of social media during routine emergencies that border on a disaster.

    In both cases the #1 need the public had was the need for knowledge. For Anthrax many folks probably thought ‘AMIOK’? and ‘RUOK? Had you not shared the brief message about the incident – mainstream media and social media may have reported on rumors and panic messages. For the plane crash – similarly – the primary need from the general public was information “IAMOK and RUOK? For the plane crash, local capacity may have been briefly exceeded for the event, but locating victims was not a challenge (unlike an earthquake or hurricane).

    In a catastrophic disaster the capacity for officials responding to the urgent needs is overwhelmed by the volume of urgent need, sometimes by the geographic size of the impacted area AND by the public’s need for information. THAT is when you need much more assistance from volunteers and organizations like Humanity Road who can help you monitor the social media streams for urgent needs and get the correct official guidance to the public. When you mentioned ‘who has time to monitor social media streams and update FaceBook – we do. Its why we are here. To help you when you need help. Just let us know, we’ll be there.

    Your approach was terrific and we are glad to know that word is spreading so quickly about sending text messages to say IMOK and is also carrying over to social media messaging as well. This will reduce the strain on 911 call centers during a disaster.

    Thank you so much for sharing. This is very valuable information.

    • http://chiefb2.wordpress.com chiefb2

      Thanks Christine! I think the text messaging acroynms in crisis will continue to take hold. Just like LMAO and ROFL does to indicate mood.

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.