You don't have to be a journalism professor to see that national media coverage of hurricanes and wildfires are different in both style and duration. You see it most dramatically when there are a small number of active fires with large impacts happening at about the same time as a hurricane hitting the US coastline. It's even more acute when an incident like the Camp Fire is responsible for more lives lost and perhaps just as much property damage as a typical hurricane. Or the Woolsey Fire where there are deaths and 200,000 residents evacuated. People wonder why the national media is not sending their top anchors to report continuously from the fire lines like they do from the beaches during a hurricane.
Before I found my way to land management agencies and the world of wildfire and incident response, I wanted to be a history professor. My undergraduate degree is in history and I went off to grad school for an MA in US History, writing a scintillating thesis on the Federal Farm Loan Act of 1916--still a big hit at cocktail parties. By the time I started PIO work, I had a decent general knowledge of western US history but soon found myself reading more on the topic because I wanted to understand the communities I would be serving. I always feel more confident and empathetic when I head into an incident carrying knowledge of the history of the place. I think it also helps build credibility if you show the locals you know about their history or if you're able to frame statements in a way that reflects and aligns with the local history. (Maybe it's just me and my inclination towards history though.)
In the wildfire world and presumably, the rest of the emergency management world, we have standardized task books but little instruction on how to fill them out and much less on how to evaluate trainees. Most of us rely on our own trainee experiences to inform how we should mark up a task book and interact with our trainees. My own time as a trainee was frustrating because senior PIOs used different criteria to sign off on tasks, not to mention being all over the board on how to put initials in the book. Once I became one of those senior PIOs, the lack of standards and protocols created several (and sometimes difficult) conversations where the trainee was adamant about what tasks I should sign off on. I've also been known to question the parentage of a previous PIO who signed a trainee's task book in a manner contrary to my approach. So, given that there are few standards, here's how I look at PIO task books and training assignments. I hope this helps others work their way through the process.
A reminder: Having a signed task book does not make you a good PIO any more than a law degree makes a good lawyer. Both jobs demand extensive experience, tutelage, and continuous learning.
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.
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.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.