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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The unplugged PIO

Empowering a community without power

We’ve all been there.....the sinking feeling as you watch the last of your smartphone battery drain away or the sudden sense of helplessness brought on by the words, “Internet connection not available.”

In the world of emergency services and even forward thinking corporations, plans and procedures are in place for Continuity of Operations during a disaster, but ask yourself this question: While we may have plans and backup systems, how ready are you to communicate with an entire community that suddenly becomes completely disconnected? No power, cell towers down, no telephones, no TV.

Joe Farago in his fire attire
Do you have the tools and skills necessary to reach an audience that may be effectively isolated by the loss of electricity and communications? And when you do, what will your message be?

In the fast-paced world of Twitter, Facebook, web pages, blogs, electronic news releases and interviews, we've come to rely on almost instantaneous, sometimes two-way communications with local residents and the world at large. But, in the scramble to keep up with the onslaught of new technology there lies a danger of becoming too dependent on electronic avenues of communication. We may be doing this at the expense of some basic preparedness principles.

When’s the last time you considered what your job would look like without electricity or the Internet?

As an example, consider what Public Information Officers on National Type I and II Incident Management Teams have been dealing with over the years as they work with communities often isolated by wildfires or hit by large scale disasters. 

Getting the information out however you can
"Go Kits" for those PIOs contain everything from stick pins, tape, flagging, paper and marking pens to large staplers, pliers, signs and battery operated portable printers. News releases and information are distributed in person and tacked or stapled onto community bulletin boards at stores, post offices, city/county offices and in other high traffic areas...complete with colored flagging to draw attention to the material.

Distribution systems called “trap lines” are created and mapped to insure that each location is known and can be maintained by team members on a daily basis. These updates become vitally important to any community cut off from the normal flow of information during an emergency.

Are “Go Kits” or portable bulletin boards part of your response plan?

Until lately, basic emergency communications methods like these had been found primarily in the world of wildland firefighting and Incident Management Team PIOs. Fortunately, some of these “lessons learned” have been blended into new courses such as the FEMA E/L 952: NIMS ICS All-Hazards Position Specific Public Information Officer.

Another example of thinking outside the “electronic box” comes from the experience of a Florida State PIO Deployment Team during Hurricane Charley in 2004. 

Hurricane Charley's aftermath left many difficulties
The Charlotte County Emergency Operations Center had been devastated by the storm. So much for plan A with all its connectivity! There was a local radio station on the air broadcasting information about points of distribution for ice and water, but how to get that message out? Team member Joel Gordon of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers noticed an undamaged plane at the airport across from the EOC being inspected by its pilot. The single engine aircraft was one normally used by advertisers to fly a banner over local beaches. The rest is history as Gordon and the team got the pilot to fly their message behind the plane with details of the radio station operation over the community.

These are only two small examples of the type of thinking required to deal with emergencies outside our comfort zone and into a world unplugged. Neither fits into that neat, comfortable space between our computer terminal and smart phone.

Public Information Officers are continually scrambling to keep up with changing times. We’re living in a world where some people are starting to expect an official emergency response to “tweets” and Internet postings. We have sophisticated systems of contacting residents with outreach messaging and electronic alerts. The media broadcasts in real time and we’re more connected than at any other moment in human history.

Emergency responders are working in a whole new environment
As response guidelines, procedures and operational manuals keep growing in scope and size, it’s a real challenge to adjust our thinking, and our training, to confront what may be the basic reality of an uncertain future. The plug might just be pulled. Then what? Have you ever been to a busy grocery store or other business where the credit card terminals have suddenly gone down? Everything just stops. Cashiers are frozen. The customer response? It’s often not pretty. Now, think of a busy airport... 

Maybe it’s time to start asking ourselves if we’re really ready for the results of something as devastating as another mega-storm or, God forbid, an electromagnetic pulse that fries our telecommunication and power grids along with most of our electronics. 

Joe teaching a new crop of public information officers
Does your training include scenarios like that? Do you have the plan or the resources in place?

You know, being a Public Information Officer involves more than just what you do at a desk or in an office. It reaches into almost every part of who you are. There’s the constant need to prepare, to look at the “what ifs.” To be informed and situationally aware. It comes with the territory.

In everyday life, it’s possible that people tell you that you worry too much. After all, they say, what’s the worst that could happen? Funny question. In the world we live in, it’s our job to consider just that.

Emergency Communications Professional

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