Station Fire–the view from Pasadena

August 31, 2009

I find myself in a hotel in Pasadena where from the street I can see the flames from the Station Fire leaping into the sky. I’m in LA for a series of meetings with government agencies about emergency communications–so it’s pure coincidence to be here at this time. But it does provide a unique opportunity to watch the dynamics of media coverage, PIO and JIC work, and local reaction.

1. Comment from an evacuee: The hotel I am in has opened its doors to evacuees and a little while ago I overheard one talking to someone on his cellphone. He said, I’m not paying any attention to the media because they are always getting it wrong. They don’t know what is going on.” I’m not saying that’s true, just reporting what one observation was.

2. Media sensationalism. Hey, this fire is pretty spectacular, scary, dangerous and deadly (two fire fighters died last night in a vehicle accident). Personally, I’m very afraid for Mount Wilson, not just for the millions in communications equipment, but for the potentially devastasting historical loss. Last year I visited the Mt. Wilson observatory where Einstein once hung out, where Edwin Hubble discovered our expanding universe and where the Big Bang theory became accepted. To lose this historic treasure would be tragic. But, watching the tv and newspaper reports is disheartening to see how substance has been exchanged for anything that will glue eyes to the screen or get someone to pick up a newspaper out of the stand. I emailed a picture of the Pasadena Star-News in the news stand to this blog to make the point. You will see what I mean when you read the headline. TV is no better. I am stunned by the lack of content about the fire and what is being done about it. But the video from helicopters, the reporters standing with flames leaping behind them, that is all impressive.

3. PIO. There certainly have been examples of stand up interviews by both fire captains and PIOs. Some good things observed, some not so good. Best thing was seeing Capt Tom Brady in full fire fighting gear, obviously dirty from the ash and smoke, giving some reassuring messages about homes being protected. Great job. Worst was a Cal Fire PIO who when asked was going to happen next to fight the fire went into considerable detail about the change in Incident Command team, the new operational period, the return of the previous team to their normal jobs and the transition to a new team. The reporter kept coming back and trying to get an answer as to what this had to do with fighting the fire. Important lesson here: while your job as PIO may be to talk about the response actions, most are not too interested at this stage of an event of getting a behind the scenes look at the operation of the EOC or Command Post. He needed to say who was in danger, if anyone, what was being done now and in the immediate future to protect people’s lives and property, and what actions were being taken to get this darn thing under control. He needed to say these things even if the reporter was asking stupid questions. But, the reporter was asking the right questions and was getting the wrong answers. PIOs need to be thinking about what is important to the public, and not what will play well when the interview is played back to Command. Not saying that was the case here. I think it was more a matter of a PIO being too close to the response in thinking and not close enough to the public–a very easy mistake to make.

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2 Responses to “Station Fire–the view from Pasadena”

  1. Mike Says:

    I totally agree. Although, media communications are so important during emergency events they are not always delivered effectively for the purposes of the public. Captains and PIOs do interviews for the 6’oclock News or the next morning’s newspaper, and the message is often changed to “anything that will glue eyes to the screen or get someone to pick up a newspaper out of the stand.”

    For emergency events, people need direct controlled messages from the emergency services authority, in this case the Pasadena Fire Department. Direct information can from the department’s website, or social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Twitter has been a great resource for timely information during emergency events. Podcasting, which acts as a personal TV or radio station, is also an effective way to share info in such situations. Podcasting is even more controlled as it delivered from the authority’s website and not through a 3rd party site like Twitter. To my knowledge The City of Pasadena Fire Department does not engage in any social media platforms.

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