Public information requirements during any crisis are significant. However, with local officials having to conduct their duties while also worrying about evacuating, it makes this effort to communicate accurate and timely information to the public even more challenging.
Here are my thoughts, as they relate to crisis communications, having been impacted by the Waldo Canyon Fire.
Our hearts and prayers go out to all those who lost loved ones and property. Also, to business owners who lost customers and had to lay off employees during the Waldo Canyon Fire due to the economic impacts of this major disaster.
Fortunately, the fire is now 100% contained. However, the community will be in recovery for sometime and most are already hard at work picking up the pieces from the worst fire in Colorado history. My family and business were on standby to evacuate, but were one of the fortunate ones that did not have to. We deeply thank our fire fighters, police and emergency management teams.
With what happened in Colorado Springs — 347 homes destroyed and 18,247 acres burned– local community leadership (El Paso County, Colorado Springs, Teller County, Woodland Park, etc.) were all under the microscope to provide citizens with information. The comfort citizens get when knowing that community leaders are doing everything possible is hard to describe during a crisis. A visible presence is strong evidence that local leadership is aware and taking action to do all to keep citizens safe. Also, being visible can not always be done only when the leadership has a free moment. Leaders MUST make time, be articulate and always have a caring attitude. We saw this going on in the daily sessions with the media.
Being defensive does not build confidence for citizens. Determining what went right or wrong needs to be left to after everyone is safe and the crisis has been controlled.
With people evacuated and on stand by to evacuate we can not assume that merely telling them go to a website is going to work for them. Other methods for disseminating public information must be used. And yes, information has to be repeated as citizens are under stress and might not see, read or hear the initial release of information.
Here are public information tools that were used during the Waldo Canyon Fire and can be a lesson for other communities.
1. Official websites.
2. Social media.
3. Community and Business Marquees: Scrolling information on evacuation and resource locations
4. Factual information released to the media on a frequent basis to include conducting interviews.
5. Priority by community leadership to conduct community meetings.
6. Central location where citizens could go IN PERSON to get the latest information.
7. Use of on-going media press conferences to distribute the information if a presence by a local official was not practical. For example, having the Incident Commander in Colorado Springs mention what was going on up close to our town instead of depending on the media to ask the question was very useful to concerned citizens.
8. Flyers were posted in business locations and other areas that citizens have access to with regards to community meetings.
9. Use of electronic reverse 911 or Alerts
10. Email blasts. For example the Greater Woodland Park Chamber sent out official information to membership.
As the former Director of Public Affairs at NORAD and USNORTHCOM, I have had my share of crisis communication planning and execution. However, having to live personally through a fire and see the public information efforts conducted by others I salute all involved in this heroic endeavor to keep us informed.