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SMoke on the water

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Wow, how time flies.  I realized it has been almost a month since I last posted.  My apologies to those who follow along.  Things have been kinda nuts at work. Let me  explain.

At “O-dark-thirty” on March 30, we responded to one of our worst nightmares- a boathouse fire at the local marina. Before the sun rose, twelve large boats and a 200’ long floating boathouse were destroyed and sunk. Even worse, two people living on one of the boats perished.

My pager went off just as I was crawling out of bed for work, and what I heard  made me shudder- “Boathouse fire, Gate 3, a caller says there are two people trapped on one of the boats”.   I could hear the dispatch phones ringing in the background, so I figured this was likely a working fire.  We have long responded to boat fires at our marina, and we typically lose at least 2-3 boats before we can start putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.  But, in my career we have never had a fire in one of these long, thin corrugated metal ovens sheltering VERY expensive toys.  We knew a fire in one of these would be trouble.

Enroute, I heard the first in engine’s size up. “Heavy smoke showing…We’re in rescue mode”… The crew sprints nearly 400 yards carrying saws and forcible entry tools with a singular mission of rescuing the trapped. Sadly, by the time they reached the boathouse it was too late, with flames totally engulfing the victims’ boat and 11 adjacent boats under the 200’ long boathouse.  Oh yeah, the wind was howling too.  Perfect.

The initial IC quickly ordered a second alarm, and I could tell by his short report and other radio traffic that we had a really big deal brewing.  After I arrived, we divided up the fire and I assumed Command.  In a heartbeat, I went from a usually supportive staff officer accustomed to sauntering up to the IC asking “Are ya winning or losing?”, to a fire chief trying to keep a fire from jumping zip codes.  I was a lonely guy until the second alarm units and staff officers arrived.  It seemed like it took forever.  Under the calm direction of a seasoned battalion chief, crews busted their butts setting up defensive operations, preventing burning “ghost” boats and fuel from drifting into other docks and boathouses.  A combination of luck and outstanding work by our crews prevented the fire from getting larger and uglier than it already was.

During all of this my work cell phone lit up like a Christmas tree with messages on our department media line voice mailbox.  Somewhere along the line, I realized I left my personal smartphone at home, and I correctly assumed local and regional news organizations were likely pinging me on Twitter for info.  As I’ve noted many times, you can’t be fast enough when it comes to public/media engagement.   In this case, we were not slow, we were at a dead stop, and I was acutely aware of this as the morning drug on.  I just had my hands full.  Eventually, my assistant chief showed up and I gave him the PIO job.  He did yeoman’s work in answering the backlog of media phone calls and interview requests.  But, our SM presence was practically non-existent.  While being shorthanded and smartphone deficient, there is more to the story;

  • We still don’t have enough local resources comfortable in using the tools, especially Twitter. Everyone’s using Facebook, but when it comes to breaking news, Twitter rules.  Our city’s communication director, who is SM savvy was on vacation (figures).
  • In a big incident, our staff will be totally engaged in making the problem go away.  We have to rely on the “second wave” resources to help fill all the ICS boxes (including PIO).  This makes us really late to the SM party.
  • Most agency staff still falls back on creating media releases, a slowwwwww way to do business. Too much time spent cramming too much information into paragraphs.
  • Without official social media guidelines or policies, it can be difficult to get people to try using it in an official capacity.  Throw unified command into the mix and things can get even more complicated.  Whose policies and platforms do you use?
  • Initial information indicated we had potential fatalities, making us extremely-and appropriately- careful about how we communicated publicly.
  • When dealing with a high profile emergency event, one PIO can’t handle it.  You need a team, and at least one team member needs to be monitoring and engaging through SM.
  • When using SM, we must respect the ICS, and make sure agency representative messages are coordinated through UC, especially in the initial operational period.  While tempting, I avoided using my personal SM account to talk about incident specifics.

As you can imagine, this is a target rich learning event on many different levels.  I’ll likely write again once the after action reviews are completed.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://tacmedia.wordpress.com Tim Burrows

    Great post!
    Having “been there, done that” I can’t do anything more than completely agree with you and feel your pain that you must have been going through.
    Extra resources are scarce, great resources are rare. Having people that can do PIO & SM well are prizes but like you said, when dealing with a high profile event, one can’t handle it all.

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.