Golden, Colorado Indian Gulch Fire provides key lessons for emergency communication

Social media or traditional media? Electeds or PIOs?

On March 20 a wildfire called the Indian Gulch fire broke out near Golden, Colorado. This incident as explained by Jacob Smith, mayor of Golden in a blog post highlights beautifully some of the most important and challenging issues of emergency communications today.

Specifically, there are two "burning" issues at play in this very enlightening blog post. One, what is needed to tell the story of an event like this? Traditional media, social media, both? And who should tell it--the PIO as designated and authorized under NIMS? Or elected officials--as practiced by most jurisdictions including by the president in the Gulf Spill?

In this fire, according to Smith, the emergency communications for the fire operated according to plan:

The plan, which was quickly pulled off the shelf and deployed as the circumstances of the fire became clear, relied primarily on a traditional communications model: the emergency operations team would compile and verify information about the fire, and they would provide it to our public information officer so that she could periodically brief the news media (with formal briefings and by posting written briefings on the city’s web site). The city would then rely largely on the media to then broadcast that information via television, radio, and print media (as well as the web sites associated with all of those). Because the fire was actually burning in unincorporated Jefferson County, outside the city limits, the county’s PIO ended up being the point person but the basic system was the same. Both Jeffco and Golden also added tweets to their outgoing communications toolbox, as well.

I'm guessing this is pretty much what most communities emergency communication plan looks like. And, it looks like it went pretty well. But, if you read the rest of Smith's post, you will see that to a large degree the official communication was a bit of a sideshow compared to the communication that was being provided "unofficially" by the Mayor via social media.

Councilor Bill Fisher and I then expanded that communications and outreach net. We started by posting much more frequent updates to our individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. We supplemented that information with periodic email updates to our newsletter lists. In my case, that was usually once a day late in the evening, which afforded me a chance to summarize the key information of the day for folks who hadn’t been able to keep up through other means and to offer some more background and detail. Bill and I independently (and then sometimes together) also traveled around town, stopping by the Golden Gate Canyon roadblock, the various staging areas, some of the areas that residents were congregating, and the Emergency Operations Center. We were able to learn more about what was happening on the ground, to hear what residents had learned and what they were concerned about, and to share information with all of those folks. We were posting periodically to our web sites as well.

So here is the picture. You've got the Unified Command (assuming it was set up since it was JeffCo and Golden together) PIO feeding info to the media. You've got the mayor and a councilor running around, checking on things and providing a continual feed of information about what they are observing through a variety of channels, but primarily Facebook, Twitter, email and their website.

The outcome? Here are a few selected observations from the mayor: (boldface by the Mayor)

The conventional means of staying tuned in – TV, radio, and print media plus their web sites – were useful and helpful, and for some people they seemed to work well. But many people were really hungry for information (especially those whose homes were at risk), and the conventional channels were too infrequent and incomplete enough to meet their needs.

[using Facebook and Twitter] this made it much easier for Bill and I to listen to what community members were saying and asking, and that made it easier to figure out where the anxieties and information gaps were. These social media tools turned out to be great for both pushing information out and for hearing what was going on among residents.

There was a huge amount of information flowing on Twitter, Facebook, and the web independent of the official news releases: reporters and especially just people who had information and stories they wanted to share. On the one hand, we needed to stay plugged in to catch any inaccurate information and to notice what rumors or fears were beginning to pick up steam so we could address them. On the other hand, it meant that key information about the fire, evacuation alerts, and so on was really amplified across the community. I know that Bill and I (as well as our city staff and Jeffco folks) were able to get important information to a lot of people, but the fact that everyone else was sharing and spreading meant that it got to even more people. Communicating really was a shared, community effort.

There is much more valuable information and insights that the mayor shares on his blog--it is well worth the read (thanks Matt for sending it). But it raises some very important questions?

- Were the mayor and the councilor outside of the bounds of NIMS? Clearly they were not getting information approved by Unified Command prior to release and NIMS is very specific about Command authority over response information.

- If they had submitted to the approval process, could they have kept the community so well informed?

- How can there be a "single voice" the NIMS/ICS doctrine with the Joint Information Center when unofficial or unauthorized officials (electeds, politicians, etc.) can freelance like this and fill the gaps?

- Given that the media gets most of their information from the most immediate sources--typically now social media because it is instantaneous--if an "official voice" (the mayor) is providing this, doesn't this make the PIO and Unified Command irrelevant in providing response information?

Don't get me wrong. I am not criticizing the mayor in this one bit. I think he did a heck of a job. But this event and how the communication was handled demonstrates just how out of touch the NIMS, information approval, one voice, Joint Information Center ideas and constructs have become in the instant news, social media-driven information environment.

As someone actively writing crisis communication plans for both large corporations and major government agencies, I struggle with this every day. I am committed to NIMS compliance, but every day that goes by I see more and more of a gap emerging. The role of politicians in communicating about major events is one extremely important element. NIMS-ICS essentially ignores this reality. But as the Coast Guard ISPR demonstrated, it was politics and politically-driven communication that pushed NIMS out of the gulf spill response. It is very interesting to me that in this Indian Gulch incident, so much of the high value communication came from a talented, savvy elected official whose website is called Jacob Smith for Golden. (I'd sure vote for you Mr. Smith--have you thought about going to Washington?) But, important issues are raised that should cause some significant thought and discussion with anyone concerned about NIMS and Joint Information Center-based emergency communication.