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.
Teaching with a PowerPoint built by someone else (especially a committee) is a great opportunity to inspire student and instructor boredom. In the incident response world, we are usually bound by NWCG and FEMA developed presentations. Not only can they be dry, but they are often out of date and not aligned with the frequent changes in incident management and crisis communications/public information. So what's an instructor to do?
Communications plans are essential to any crisis. You have to understand the incident, identify your audiences, select the principal messages, and determine the best ways to deliver and spread your information. Then you have to make sure a lot of other folks understand the plan. For a primary crisis communicator or PIO, you should always have a plan and it should constantly be evolving based on the reality of the incident. However, unlike public affairs people, we often don't have time to write it all down.
Wandering around camps and offices, you often hear hear murmurings about how Type I IMT members have large egos.
Well, yes, that's mostly true. But it's only half of the story. That Type I self-assuredness is not necessarily a personality flaw. Instead, it emanates from two elements of Type I work:
Way back when I was a PIO2(T), I was dutifully making my stops on a trapline for a big fire when I was contacted by the Lead PIO with new instructions. The agency administrator had relayed reports of panic in a nearby neighborhood and I was told to go quell that panic. We certainly could not afford any panic on this incident, no sir. In those days, the word panic scared me as I envisioned having to crawl on top of my government-provided Ford Ranger and shout down an angry mob. The reality was quite a bit different.
When I got to the neighborhood, there were a few people packing up, but nothing crazy. I stopped by a house where a man was loading stuff into the back of a pickup. After a little conversation, I learned he and some others were bugging out because the fire was on the nearest ridge and would be into the neighborhood in no time. Indeed, the column looked formidable and close. However, I knew it was several miles away and not a near-term threat to the neighborhood. Once that was explained to the homeowner and a few neighbors who had wandered over, everyone relaxed, I reported my success at stopping the great panic and subsequently got a few things signed off in my task book. The praise I received seemed a bit excessive for just chatting with a few folks about what was going on, but the experience did spur me to start thinking about panic and how we use it on incidents.
Chaos Theory originated in the math and physics world, but has increasingly been used in the social sciences to help explain large, dynamic systems. A number of scholars have applied the ideas to crisis communication. In a paper available through Google Scholar titled Chaos Theory, Informational Needs, and Natural Disasters, authors Sellnow, Seeger, and Ulmer describe the theory this way:
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.