I don’t see how we can’t talk about climate change. The facts are overwhelming, the science is sound, and our wildland fire experiences validate both.
Now, I get that the topic is uncomfortable and I certainly get that while not official policy, not saying much if anything about climate change is a preference that has been well communicated by the current administration. Obviously, it’s a political minefield and I’m not advocating climbing on top of the soapbox and preaching. Most of the time, I don’t think communicators on wildland fires or other disasters should bring it up. But neither should we shy away from discussing climate change when it is appropriate or when asked by the public, stakeholders, cooperators, or the media. As incident responders, we have the obligation to honestly confront reality and as true crisis communicators we have a responsibility to discuss that reality in a way that establishes competence and confidence. If we dance around the topic in an obvious fashion, we damage our standing and the public’s view of our expertise.
I sat down with Brad Pitassi, who is a PIO1 Lead on one of the Southwest National IMTs when he is not a Captain and PIO for the City of Maricopa Fire Department. We discussed Brad's career, the differences between PIOs and PAOs, the need to understand policy and strategy on dynamic and complex events, continuous learning, the training process, and what traits we like to see in a good PIO.
The AP Stylebook Twitter feed (a good follow) posted this today:
Use square miles to describe the size of fires. The fire has burned nearly 4 1/2 square miles of hilly brush land. Use acres only when the fire is less than a square mile. When possible, be descriptive: The fire is the size of Denver.
They don't give a rationale, but one can guess it's because the size of an acre escapes more and more readers. However, we talk in acres because it is our wildland fire cultural and bureaucratic default. PIOs should recognize this issue and assist media and the public in understanding the size of incidents by covering both bases: "The fire is X acres, which is about the size of Y."
Soon after the Yarnell Hill Fire, I wrote a paper on my thoughts and experiences. Considering the passage of time and additional assignments, I might change a few things on the periphery but I think the paper stands up well. I did not want to re-write it and I struggled on how to approach this topic for more than a few days. I decided to do a play-by-play of a briefing I gave on the Yarnell Hill Fire. I post this not to call attention to my being there, but because it was a tough briefing and unlike with other briefings out there, I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling as I analyze the questions and answers. (As I noted in Part 1, I would not have been able to do this without the experiences on Wallow and Rodeo-Chedeski.)
I believe this was the Wednesday after the Sunday fatalities and it is the day the Granite Mountain crew buggies were to be returned to their home in Prescott. The media is congregated at a roadblock on the side of the highway leading into Peoples Valley and Yarnell. The plan was for the crew buggies to leave the fire area and pass by us around 10:00, after which I would brief the media. However, there were delays and when the video starts, it is after 11:00 with no sign of the rigs. By that time, it was hitting 100 degrees and you could tell the media personnel were getting short-tempered after standing by for well over an hour. As a result, they started asking questions without a formal start to the briefing. Also, I never wear a radio for briefings, but had one on here so I could monitor the traffic about the crew buggie transport and planned to take it off as soon as I knew they were headed towards us. So, for perhaps the most difficult briefing in my career, everything was going wrong at the start.
The Wallow Fire started fast and got big faster. On the third day, it went from about 6,700 acres to 40,000 and over the next seven days, it consumed the following acreage:
Upon arriving, I was assigned to lead the Media Group and it was not soon after that it became evident we were not functioning well. Information was too detailed, too fluid, too much, and too frequent for consistency between individual PIOs (and some of those PIOs were, by necessity, forced into roles beyond their capacity). After hearing complaints from both PIOs and media, we held an impromptu press briefing. We then committed to twice-daily briefings and things seemed to settle down a bit for the media, but not for us. What follows are some thoughts on media briefings and large incident issues in general. Much of this post is based off of a piece I wrote soon after leaving the incident, so some of you may have seen that earlier version.
Many organizations require their employees to undergo regular training on personal ethics. The goal of these trainings is to expose one to the common humanity and encourage you to not be a jerk. Yet while we spend numerous hours on the personal, we rarely talk about the larger ethical issues revolving around what we do as organizations--in this case, as emergency responders--even though many of the decisions we make before and during a crisis have ethical dimensions. For example, in the wildland fire world, we routinely prioritize the protection of communities and major infrastructure over individual homes, smaller clumps of structures, and other values when suppression resources are tight and the number of incidents are large. Is this right? Is it moral? Ethical? Is it ethical for leadership to place those decisions on IMTs and other responders? Is it ethical for the decisions to be made without an extensive public discussion about the values that will be applied to those decisions?
To the nonspecialist, disasters have an accidental nature which is related to the factor of surprise when they occur: the normal, structured, everyday aspect of some form of human life is suddenly and directly ruptured via events that initially exceed customary social and physical prediction and control. This... together with a historical and contemporary certainty that some disasters will occur in the near and intermediate future, renders the inevitable fact of disaster a compelling moral or ethical subject. Human well-being and harm will be at stake in ensuing disasters, and this in itself creates moral obligations to prepare for disaster and reflect on the moral principles that do or do not apply in responding to disaster.
Of all the things to read about this day, the FDNY oral histories stand alone. I'm partial to the one by Firefighter Robert Siragusa because he captures the idea of service we all strive towards:
Everybody was kind of pretty much in shock at that time. We didn't know what the hell was going on or what to do. So we regrouped with a bunch of firemen. With a bunch of guys we regrouped. We just came back to the front of the building again. This time it was a bigger mess than it was the first time. A lot of the guys just went right to work after that. They just got right back in that rubble, started looking for people.
"So we regrouped." And they went to work.
The whole thing is worth a read, as are many others.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.