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.
My first media briefing was on the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire in 2002. That year, I was a PIO2(T) working out of Bandelier National Monument in a position created by the National Fire Plan. It was no accident that one of these positions happened to be at Bandelier, as the park was recovering in every way from the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000. My main job was to help rebuild relationships among local agencies and, working with the inestimably graceful Dolores Maese on the Santa Fe National Forest, I became the de facto Initial Attack PIO for the area. 2002 was a tough year on the Santa Fe as extreme drought conditions were so bad that if a fire reached ten acres, it was likely well on the way to 1,000 or more. By mid-June, I had already worked four major fires across the Santa Fe. As we were wrapping up a fire near Cuba, NM, a big one started to the west in Arizona.
The first few days, it seemed every PIO in the SW was assigned to the fire except me. Well, me and four freshly minted PIO3 trainees. Another of my regular job directives was to increase the number of PIOs in the National Park Service and it turns out the only ones interested were four barely-out-of-college members of Bandelier's Fire Effects Crew. Finally, the call came for all five of us. By this time, the Rodeo Fire was the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire and four Type I IMTs were assigned. We were to report to the NW corner that included the community of Heber-Overgaard.
Now, in my mind I knew this was a big one, but I really had no frame of reference for a 400,000 acre fire. My first clue as to how unprepared I was for this assignment came when we turned off of I-40 and headed south. We weren't too far out of Holbrook when we encountered a roadblock. I thought it was strange because we were still 40 miles from fire camp. After another 20 or so miles, we topped a rise and there it was. The sky was a sickly bright orange and there were multiple columns across the horizon. The panorama was overwhelming.
We pulled over and put on our PPE and then finished the drive to the Heber-Overgaard camp as I tried to gin up a little joviality and leadership presence to cover for my nervousness. When we meandered through camp and checked in that afternoon, it was clear the entire team was feeling the stress as tempers were short and the language was abrupt. Once the forms were completed, we went to check in with the Lead PIO. However, all we could find was fellow PIO2(T) Stanton Florea, a local USFS employee and a recent S-403 classmate. He had been on the fire since it started and was running on fumes. It was clear sleep had not been his priority. We learned that besides the primary on the team, we were the only PIOs working the NW side of the fire and Stanton was gearing up to take part in a media briefing in Show Low that night. After failing to talk him out of it, I did convince him to at least let one of us drive him because he was in no condition to do 40 miles each way in the dark. That settled, he went to get something in his tent. After a few moments he came out and accepted reality. He was going to sleep and all of a sudden I was headed to Show Low.
After a few conversations around camp, I had some decent notes and I thought I knew what I would say. Sure, I had less than six hours officially on the fire and an incomplete briefing, but I was confidant. After all, I had done OK when talking in front of the three Albuquerque TV stations at the same time, right? How different could this be?
Turns out, it was a lot different. A different world, in fact. When I pulled into the Show Low camp, I noticed a bunch of satellite trucks but I didn't quite process what it meant. (For those of you who don't remember, when Show Low was evacuated, the decision was made to let the media stay in fire camp. I think there were about 400 media reps at the time.) I entered the Info building and had never seen so many PIOs. Practically all of my S-203 and S-403 instructors were there and busy. Massive numbers of PIOs sat in rows answering phones. The energy in the room was indescribable.
I was told to sit down and wait, so I did. A few minutes later, a large group walking fast sweeps me up and we head outside the building. It was dark and I remember noticing the glow coming from the back of the building. We headed in that direction, turned the corner and there was a bank of video cameras with lights on and there seemed to be another row behind them. And beyond the cameras were a large group of what I assumed were print reporters. Oh my.
When the briefing lineup was set. I was last in line. When my turn finally came, I purposefully strode to the podium, placed my notes down, looked up, and realized my notes were useless. There was so much light coming off the cameras I was partially blinded and could not read anything. Coupled with the sudden realization that I was in way over my head, my pretend confidence was destroyed and I quickly ejected a short series of horrible mumbles and stumbles. I knew I had closed the briefing out on a low note. When I was done, there was a brief second where I thought maybe it was all fine as reporters started yelling my name. Just as I was turning back towards the podium, Jim Paxon, one of my S-403 teachers and PIO1 for the SW IMT that had been originally assigned to the fire, cut in front and the realization hit that I was not the only Jim around. His quick movement saved me from a greater embarrassment and I quickly slinked off to the side.
The level of incompetence I displayed was exceptional. Even accounting for the "harder-on-yourself" bias, I had a well-earned F and that would be a generous grade. After the first briefing, I went back to Show Low a couple more times but never with much success and lots of questions to myself about my suitability for this kind of work. I did receive some well-timed pats on the back from my most supportive mentors, but it seemed more out of sympathy than anything. Amazingly though, they continued to encourage me throughout my career. (One lesson to share from that incident is to luck into good mentors.)
Speaking of luck, I was fortunate it was 2002 and not quite the social media world we live in now. I can find no video or photo of my Rodeo-Chedeski appearance on the Internet. Thankfully. Paradoxically, I was also lucky that I had the experience while a PIO2(T) as everyone seemed to dismiss it and forget about it, or were at least too kind to bring it up. That gave me time to slowly build up my knowledge and rebuild my confidence as I went through the steps of completing the Type 2 Task Book, becoming the Primary on the New Mexico Type 2 IMT, and eventually a PIO1. It also gave me both a foundation and a goal to strive for. Without that experience, I'm certain I wouldn't be who I am now.
Driving home from the assignment allowed me to process and think for the first time since being dispatched. The immediate pledge was to never rely on notes again. Ever. I also recognized I needed to learn more about fire than just S-190--there was a necessity to truly understand what the Operations Chief was saying instead of just parroting it. I started going over the questions that had been shouted at Paxon and other PIOs during the briefings (unsurprisingly, no reporter asked me anything) and tried to come up with better answers. I thought of additional questions that might be asked and came up with answers for those too. I thought about the process of briefings and what I would do if I ever had the opportunity to organize one. I watched TV and listened to the radio when others were briefing on large incidents, putting myself in their place, critiquing their answers, appropriating the good things they did, and noting the things I disagreed with and those that didn't fit me. I tried to identify the stresses I felt and attempted to figure out ways to manage them better. I took classes PIOs don't usually take. I read books and worked through scholarly sources as best I could. I paid attention to team dynamics and tried to understand why IMTs would start to flounder during tough incidents. Once I had gone over all of that many times, I started expanding to "what ifs" and working through how I'd deal with potential situations. I did all of that continuously for nine years and through 37 large incidents while wondering if I would ever have a chance to redeem myself. Then came 2011 and the Wallow Fire. It was by no means perfect, but it was definitely better.
In retrospect, no PIO2(T) fresh out of S-403 should have been asked to do that kind of briefing, but it was a different time and I think the odds of it happening today are slim. Still, sometimes incidents have their own logic and one can never tell when circumstances might conspire against any one of us. That's a big reason I started this blog--I hope by sharing some of the hard-earned lessons that those coming up and experiencing new stresses will have better tools than I did to move us all forward.
And please, if anyone gets into a briefing environment they are not prepared for and there is even a little bit of time, give one of us a call and we will do our best to help you work through it. And remember, everything is a learning opportunity if you persevere.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.