Emergency Management and Crisis Response: Media, PIO & Training

I am pleased to share with you this excellent article written by two very dedicated emergency management leaders from Southern California. I hope you enjoy and takeaway some very helpful tidbits of information, I know I did.  —Bill Booth


Emergency Public Information Communicators

The United State Marine Corps has a term called PACE – Primary plan, Alternate plan, Contingency plan and Emergency plan. No plan ever works completely as expected, but does that mean we should not plan at all or that we should have multiple plans?

“You cannot talk your way out of a crisis.”
Tom Olshanski  – FEMA

The concept of PACE is to be able to adapt to changing conditions because sometimes events unfold differently than anticipated. This is when an alternate or contingency plan can be implemented.  When all else fails the emergency plan is used.  In theory, when a plan does not go as expected, we adjust to the conditions in real time.  In reality, when there is a curve ball or unexpected event, it often throws us off our game.  Our usually sharp problem solving skills may be slowed or off target.  Alternate or contingency plans minimize potential negative impacts of a situation.

Most tacticians would agree that no one should ever go into any situation without knowing first how to get out. However, is this possible in all cases? Can we always plan for a successful escape when things go wrong? What about those situations where something is going wrong but you don’t know it yet? These are the surprises in life that no one likes or appreciates.PIO Briefing

This is the realm of risk management – the assessment, mitigation and response to identified and unidentified risks. Risk is about potential loss and what can go wrong, based on our best estimates and evaluations coupled with experience. Life is full of potential benefits accompanied by potential risks.

Risk is constant. Risk comes in many forms such as personal, financial, business, relationships, environmental and medical. Other risks include those events that can become a crisis. There is always risk and it can turn at a moment’s notice. To quote the famous risk manager and humorist.

“If you can think of it, it can happen.” Gordon Graham,

Personal and institutional reputations are risks that can affect a current emergency or significant corporate event as well as have long-term impacts. These risks can quickly trump the emergency itself.

It is important to appreciate that people can see risks and quickly become overcome by fear. Fully understanding risk and developing mitigation that is supported by a tested response plan can go a long way to reducing real and perceived fear.

One of Grahams’ best examples of risk is that of an old VW driving on the freeway at 65 with a bed mattress tied to the roof flapping in the wind. Is there a chance of it blowing off? Of course. Is the risk preventable? Yes.

In contrast, a crisis is when the mattress blows off onto the freeway causing a multi-car collision injuring people, damaging property and impacting on thousands of commuters.

Crisis is unexpected, creates uncertainty and it is seen as a threat.  It is finite and concludes over a period of time. A crisis can come in many forms and more than one crisis can occur at a time. How a crisis is managed frequently drives the intensity and longevity of an event.

One crisis event has a nasty way of creating additional crisis sometimes completely removed from the original event. Multiple unexpected, threatening situations frequently cause one to change or create new plans on the fly with little or no preparations. On the operational side of emergency response this can turn into just doing what needs to be done based on experience, practical necessity and common sense.

Most crises do not remove the initial risks

The risks associated with driving a car are not eliminated because you were involved in a collision. While it is true you may drive slower, wear a seatbelt and pay better attention to your surroundings, these things minimize some risks, yet the risk of another collision remains.

Three Forms Of Crisis

A crisis can come in three forms:

  1. Natural – includes fires, weather, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and extreme solar activity.
  2. Human Made – Human crisis has almost unlimited sources. What is a crisis for one person may not be another’s crisis based on the level of perceived threat and personal response. A death in the family, loss of a job, serious injury, and loss of one’s home are examples of individual human crisis. Large scale human crisis can include war, famine, disease, flooding and fire. Here who has a plan and who does not becomes quickly evident.
  3. Societal – Societal crisis is a growing concern or threat throughout the world. Our society is experiencing profound changes and stresses. Change in enviable as baby boomers begin to leave the work world and move into retirement. These changes may well cause further stress on our already strained society.  When a concern becomes a crisis, it is perceived as a threat or emergency that demands resolution.  The same situation may be a concern to one person and a crisis to another person.

The three forms of crisis, natural, human made and societal apply to institutions, government and business. The rules of risk management apply here too. Further complicating the challenges that confront managers and executives is that internal crisis can quickly impact the general public.

Loss of Containment

The loss of containment of a crisis is one of the great fears within most organizations. Reputation and credibility is everything. The ramifications of not being prepared can be catastrophic.

Perception of risk is greatly influenced by past experience, education and awareness. Those who have lived through a wind driven wildfire or hurricane for example are much more apt to take precautions for these types of events in the future than someone who has not had a personal experience.

  • Decades of experience has clearly demonstrated that communities, businesses and individuals do not typically anticipate emergencies. When they do experience an emergency, it is often by over reacting or not reacting at all. This is frequently governed by how the media (typically television) portrays an event. The type of media coverage and personal exposure will frequently affect response.
  • Good communication and relevant information can significantly reduce risks, threats and additional crisis. During any crisis impacting the community the public has three information priorities: What happened or is happening, what does it mean to me and what is being done about it?

Media and the Digital World

Media includes radio, print, television and the ever expanding digital world. The roles of media are to report, share information, provide perspectives and various views on life. Media outlets are also businesses and as such it is essential that they make money like any other business. What do you suppose makes money for television news – high action events with dynamic video or reading the stock reports? How about newspapers, radio and magazines?

What Does It Mean_Triangal

While it is true media wants to report the news in a dramatic way they also have an institutional interest in being a public servant by supporting the mission and message of public safety. At times, the roles of making money and providing a message of public safety do not lead to the same approach.

How the media portrays an event can significantly impact how the public may responds. The media can also create a crisis from an otherwise benign event. For example, a storm warning from the weather service can be presented in many ways. An alarmist newscaster can make a simple rain storm sound like a Category 5 hurricane.  Solid reliable information communicated clearly makes a difference.

Media and the PIO

The relationship between media and public safety is the job of the Public Information Officer (PIO). Over the years this position has become more complex consequently the term is becoming obsolete. Today’s PIO is more apt to be called the External Affairs Officer within many organizations particularly at the federal level.

Many organizations utilize their PIO to help identify real and perceived risks. The PIO collects information, presents it in a concise and clear way, and provides the information to those who need to know. The PIO presents the information in context, in a manner that can be understood and heard by a target audience.  They can be used to identify unique or special needs audiences and tailor messages for those audiences. They may establish agency and event messages.

As the function has grown many PIO’s have also become subject matter experts. This gives the public a better understanding of what is occurring because the messenger truly understands the message as well as the situation.  This is why many fire departments use trained fire fighters to be PIO’s. They truly understand the subject matter and communicate it clearly.

The ongoing evaluation of the entire information exchange process keeps the information system functioning. It is essential that the effectiveness of crisis messaging is evaluated. This includes reviewing the impacts and limitations that media and public safety experiences during the response and recovery phase.

We all have risks. Some risk may be good because it keeps us alert and paying attention to things that can matter. However, because identified risks can become a crisis, it is paramount that plans are developed.  In a similar way, good communication strategies and skilled PIO’s can minimize expansion of threats and complexity during crisis.

Advanced training and public education is also a prevention process. The better we all know and understand how emergency situations are handled the less fear, mistrust and frustration that will occur when we are impacted by an emergency. An emergency is an immediate risk to life or property.  Armed with knowledge and training, an emergency does not have to become a number of increasing crisis events.

In an emergency, your plan may not be the action you take but it will serve as a baseline from which your secondary plan will take hold. Planning coupled with clear, relevant and timely information in an emergency is vital because an emergency does not have to be a crisis.

Additional Resources

Here are several additional ways to stay connected and informed with Public Safety Training:

  • Public Safety Training Newsletter – a monthly e-newsletter covering the top news, events and announcements in Public Safety Training. Click here and sign-up (lower right) to read the current issue and get updates.
  • Responder Gateway – A full featured First Responder news and resource hub. One Place, One Stop, One Source, Visit here and receive daily or weekly fire service or law enforcement news events, alerts or important announcements.

About the Authors

MICHAEL S. WILLIAMS – Michael S. Williams is a retired police officer with over 12 years of law enforcement experience. For over 28 years he has worked as a private investigator and security consultant specializing in fraud, embezzlement, workplace violence and fatal traffic investigations. He has served 21 years as a volunteer wildland fire fighter, currently serving as president-executive director of the department. He is co-host of the radio show Community Alert on KZSB – AM 1290 as well as a regular Santa Barbara News-Press columnist and frequent contributor to The California Fire Service Magazine. He is active in the public information community serving as chair of the Santa Barbara County Operational Area Emergency Public Information Communicators PIO association. Williams is President-Executive Director of the Fire Services Training Institute and a longtime member of the California State Firefighters’ Association, International Emergency Managers Association, and International Association of Fire Chief’s, among others. He is on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara Firefighters Alliance and a member of the California State Board of Fire Services.

SUSAN KLEIN-ROTHSCHILD – Susan Klein-Rothschild lights up a room with her energy and enthusiasm for life and what she does for a living. From the beginning of her career Susan knew she wanted to give back to society – to be one who was and is passionate about helping others less fortunate. Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, she attended Cal State Northridge obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology, followed by a Masters in Social Work at San Diego State University. She began her social work career in Colorado helping those in need, primarily in the area of child abuse, giving families a chance to become successful in life. Susan is proud to say, “I have made a difference in people’s lives.” She moved to Nevada where she served as Director of the Clark County Department of Family Services. She joined the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department as Assistant Deputy Director. She is currently assigned to the Health Division where she oversees a broad range of programs that support the health of the general population. Susan is responsible for a variety of programs including initiating a new administrative model for the Sexual Assault Response Team. She serves as the agencies Public Information Officer. Susan has played a vital role during many local emergencies that faced the county. Susan has been instrumental in getting the word out on regarding public health issues arising out of fires, floods, public health and other crises that may occur. Susan is a well-published author and speaker. She has been a member of EPIC for almost 6 years and we are pleased she is now a member of the EPIC Executive Committee.

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About Bill Booth

Authority on Strategic Business Planning For Public Safety, Police and Fire Training Centers. President of the Interact Business Group www.interactbusinessgroup.com and Managing Editor at www.respondergateway.net
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