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by Gerald Baron: Crisis and emergency communication strategies

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Guest Post: San Bruno, a 1999 Event and how the world has changed
September 13, 2010
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[Editor's note: Another guest post from Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd. This one hits close to home as the event he refers to that happened in 1999 is where I met the good chief as we worked together in responding to the pipeline explosion. This event is also what launched the PIER System and my journey in crisis communication resulting in such things as writing this blog.]

Last night I was sitting at my computer compiling research for a project when my TweetDeck Twitter feed started noting a large fire in the San Francisco area. The comments quickly escalated, with a broad range of observers reporting the same thing. Thinking that there was a major airline catastrophe in the works, I picked a couple of common hash tag words and began monitoring. What this revealed was not only a huge emergency event for the San Bruno community, but also my own emotional baggage from a similar event that occurred in my community in 1999.

Within 20-30 minutes of the beginning of the event, I tapped into online live TV news coverage of the rapidly escalating disaster. The news reporters and tweets were speculating that a gas station had blown up and/or a commercial aircraft had crashed into a neighborhood adjacent to San Francisco International Airport. But, the volume, size and heat generated by the clean burning fire indicated to me that this was most likely a high pressure natural gas pipe line fire. I quickly tweeted my observations, which were re-tweeted and confirmed by others much closer to the situation than me.

Over the next two hours I sat riveted to my computer, reading, observing and sharing information and my perspective and opinion. You see, in 1999, my community experienced a similar disaster. A 16 inch underground pipeline carrying unleaded gasoline ruptured in my city, spewing 230,000 gallons of gasoline into an urban creek, where it was unwittingly ignited by two boys. The ensuing flame front traveled a mile and a half in ten seconds, destroying everything in it's path, along with the sense of community shared by our citizens. The two boys and another young man lost their lives that day, and the City of Bellingham lost it's innocence and sense of security. Watching the video and reading the real time tweets from San Bruno took me back to 1999. The emergency responder side of me wanted to get on the next airplane and fly down there to help out. The non-emergency side of me became agitated, impatient and angry that something like this happened to another community. "What the hell happened this time?" was all I could think. Soon thereafter, I decided to disengage for self-preservation purposes and went to bed.

This morning the news and various feeds confirmed my fears and suspicions. An underground pipeline carrying high pressure natural gas had catastrophically failed, incinerating the neighborhood. I was awestruck by not only the devastation, but also the lack of widespread damage, given the lack of water available to firefighters and the strong winds. The San Bruno and assisting fire, police and public works departments did a helluva job in containing a conflagration.

Many lessons will be learned and shared from this event. My initial observations from the "cheap seats";

  1. San Bruno and assisting public safety/public works/medical care folks performed at the highest level. I am in humbled by their work, and proud to call them peers.
  2. The same goes for the community at large. With the exception of a couple of reports of looting (which is often a rumor in disasters), the altruism of San Bruno citizens warms the heart.
  3. The power of Social Media - especially Twitter - in this event was almost overwhelming. As someone who experienced a similar event just over a decade ago, I not only could understand and predict what was going on, I had a visceral response.
  4. Highly visible events like this generate a lot of SM "noise". It takes a practiced eye and patience to delineate fact from fiction - and you still may be wrong.
  5. Most folks tweeting from the incident were not directly involved from what I can tell. I am guessing that those immediately affected had much bigger things to worry about.
  6. Twitter postings were coming in faster than I could track. I also suspect that the tweet trend application I use could not keep up with the volume of traffic. I am sure this will discussed at length in the coming days/weeks.
  7. The pipeline company and other responding organizations quickly used SM to get their message out. Whether it was effective or not remains to be seen.

Looking back to 1999, I wish I would have had all of the tools now available. Google Earth, Bing Maps, aerial maps, satellite images, real time weather reports, Twitter, Facebook, and more. The citizens of San Bruno quickly and effectively mobilized to help their emergency responders and neighbors in large part due to the ability to rapidly communicate and rally help in the heat of the moment. I remain humbled.




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