As a communicator, it's easy to get wrapped around the axle trying to remember what we can and cannot talk about. For instance, in the wildfire world, I saw a lot of skittishness last year when it came to air tankers--and for good reason. Contracts and such are complicated things beyond most PIO's (and ICs, FMOs, and agency administrators) understanding. When it comes to flying things that weigh a bunch and get politicized easily, it becomes even tougher to not only get it factually correct, but to also navigate through all the potential political potholes.
Yet just because a topic includes complex and controversial issues does not mean we should surrender the whole conversation to others.
Donations for perceived responder needs are an issue on most incidents. The tales of donation problems are legion and range from mountains of socks and foot powder to truckloads of dog food and sunglasses. The demands on the logistics section and the incident management team are enormous on any incident and adding the burden of managing the intake and fair distribution of donations is beyond most. If the incident is not willing and able to accept the donations, a reflexive public outcry is always a possibility. Like many things in our complicated society, there is no good way to deal with the commendable actions of donations.
One of the tough things about policy is that the identification of problems is easy while the improvements and solutions are extremely difficult to express and even more difficult to implement. Still, the problems cannot be ignored even if a certain proposal has little chance of implementation. With that in mind and also understanding I'm no scientist or lawyer, let's talk about federal incident management positions and wildland firefighters. To mix metaphors, just give me a second to mount the soapbox and start chasing rabbits.
Since 1970, the western US annual wildfire season has grown in duration by 78 days. (Globally, fire season has lengthened across 11.4 million square miles, roughly the size of Africa.) Since 1984, the area annually burned by wildfire in the US has doubled. The Forest Service estimates that area may double again by 2050. Some scientists now say 50% or more of western forests could burn in the next three decades. Fires greater than 1,000 acres have increased almost 600% since the 1970's and fires over 10,000 acres are up by over 700% for the same time period. In short, the changes we are seeing across the landscapes are not explainable without considering the major driver of climate change. Everything else, including lack of thinning, prescribed fire, and other management practices can't touch the influence of climate change.
Media briefings are not something we do every day. Sure, crisis communicators and PIOs often do interviews, but a full-blown live media briefing for a high-visibility incident seldom comes around. I've had the luck--or misfortune--of doing media briefings on four incidents during my career. Some were bigger than others and one was more emotional than the rest, but the common elements are multiple and varied media outlets, live broadcasts, long-term and complex incidents, and regional or national (and international) coverage.
Media briefings are perhaps the most intense thing we can do as PIOs/crisis communicators. Not only are we representing all the responders and speaking to all of the public affected, but because of the high visibility, many others are watching and our reputation--perhaps our career--might be influenced by a single exchange. Because of that dynamic, you can look at media briefings as the most personally stressful communications chore. If you are speaking about fatalities, it amps things up even more.
Since the idea of this blog popped into my head, I've been thinking about a post on media briefings. I started writing a few times, but those attempts were ultimately frustrating. As I worked through the process, I came to realize I couldn't build a post around an academic bent or just jot down a basic How-To. No, in order to honestly convey the lessons I learned, it had to be more personal. So please bear with me. As of now, I plan to break the topic up into three posts (maybe four) that will mirror the chronology of my career through the Rodeo-Chedeski, Wallow, and Yarnell Hill fires. (The Eagle Creek Fire will make an occasional guest appearance.) This first one will be the most personal and deal with learning and persevering through failure, the second will cover mostly positive lessons learned, and the third will be about the unique stresses fatalities bring.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.