2013 Retrospective: The Demise Of Facebook

And now we’ve reached the top spot. The big enchilada. My most viewed post. And, of course it’s about Facebook. Part of last year’s end of year countdown, this post was all about the algorithmic changes that Facebook was undergoing and attempted to explore what that meant for government agencies looking to utilize social media to disseminate critical information.

The coolest part of this post isn’t the post itself. And it doesn’t have anything to do with me (sadly). It has to do with what’s happened with social media since I wrote this post. The so-called “river of news” that we’ve come to understand as social media is dying. Blogs are on the way out, Facebook’s home feed has almost no bearing on who posted what and when, Snapchat is the hot, new commodity and there’s not feed there. Social media no longer lives by the rule of post it and they will come. Instead it’s all about building a community now. It’s all about ranking and engagement and friendships. I’ve said this for years, but now we’re really seeing it. People will no longer read what you have to say just because you’re the government. And next year, things will change even more.

The third lesson we’ve learned this year is a new one, and one I wouldn’t have guessed six months ago. One that many folks, when writing their crisis communications plans six months ago wouldn’t have guessed. It was the demise of Facebook as a crisis messaging tool. Yep, demise, I said it.

(That doesn’t mean Facebook is useless in a crisis–in fact, there are situations and topics where Facebook is still the very best method of communications. But today I’m talking about using it as a crisis messaging service, which is important because Facebook is written into so many crisis plans to be used in just that way.)

It took a number of years, a lifetime in social media, for Facebook to start offering useful Pages for non-person entities like businesses and non-profits to stake a claim on the social network. And it took a few more years for the General Services Administration to negotiate Terms of Service with the social networking giant, signaling that it was “okay” for government to put a toe into the virtual world. A couple of years, and one IPO, later, we have government agency Pages littering the Facebook landscape. (And given how underutilized some of them are, littered is the correct word.)

And then, this fall, something changed. An algorithm, to be specific. (For folks who said that geeks would never rule the world…)

The specific algorithm is the EdgeRank one, which determines how many people see a particular Page’s posts. The idea is that the more interaction one’s Page has, the more likely it will be that Page’s posts will be seen by it’s followers. You used to post something and about forty percent of your followers would see it in their feed. Today, the number is between ten and fifteen percent. (So when you proudly tell your executive that your agency has just reached 100 followers, no more than fifteen people are seeing your posts organically.) Coincidentally, this change happened around the same time that Facebook started offering Pages the ability to increase the EdgeRank of their posts, for a fee.

And people revolted.

Of course, just days later, Superstorm Sandy hit and government agencies all over the Mid-Atlantic used their new social media plans to post to Facebook, only to see the effects blunted by this new algorithm change.

For years, social media acolytes have pitched using social media as a way to get direct, opt-in only, agency-to-person messaging utilizing other people’s distribution networks (read: free), around the media filter. And for the most part, that pitch has been successful (because it was right).

But now? I can’t promise that anymore. I can only promise that some tiny percentage of the people who have signed up to see what you’re posting will see it. Any fantasies you had about posting a boil water advisory on your Page and having 10,000 people in your county see and share it are gone.

The proliferation of messaging platforms has also diluted the pool.  Snapchat, Kik Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram to name a few, are all competing for attention from the same pool of people all trying to be hyper connected socially. How long can the pioneers stay current with new social media trends and a flippant and unloyal userbase that is willing to adopt the next social media trend.

And besides all that, just listening to some of the money-making ideas coming out of Menlo Park, one has to wonder how much longer government will tolerate plying along. From the Instagram Terms of Service debacle to allowing access to people’s Messenger for a dollar per spam message, well, one has to wonder how much longer we can consider it a prime messaging network.

2013 Retrospective: When Engagement Goes Afoul

This is a good one. Not only was this one splashed all over my blog, but the tech punditry was all over it, too. This was a huge black eye for a company that regularly scores high on various “most hated” lists. The best part of this post was the proof. There’s an image linked in there that has every tweet. Every. Single. Embarrassing. Tweet. And each one was more cringe-worthy than the previous. Like watching a trainwreck. Slow motion disaster.

Just placing your message in front of people, especially in today’s cacophonous world, simply does not work. Much like we zoom past dozens of billboards on our way to work every day without even noticing that they’ve changed, getting your message out is a poor way to measure how well you’re messaging. Our social marketing friends will tell you that’s a core component to the work that they do: measure success by success (also known as behavior change), not by opportunity for change (also known as failure to change).

But when we move out of tightly controlled social marketing situations and academia, how do you measure success? How does government measure success? Well, for a long time, it was counting eyeballs. We gave out 500 brochures, our bus ads were seen by 100,000 people, our website got 10,000 hits, our Facebook page has 1,500 likes. But just because people saw our message doesn’t mean that the message was successful, just that the medium was.

As eyeball-counting has lost its luster, comms folks have started talking about engagement, especially in social media. How many times were we retweeted? How many folks shared our Facebook post? This is definitely growth from the days of billboards and newspaper ads, so it’s a good thing. And while we can’t evaluate behavior change, we can count behavior, albeit small. This is a Good Thing.

But when we figure out good things, we inevitably find shortcuts. We find cheaters. We find folks who create “zombie communities.” We find folks like those who run Bank of America’s Twitter account:

When Twitter user @darthmarkh tweeted about how he was chased away by cops after drawing chalk in front of a New York City Bank of America that was pointing out how BofA was taking away people’s homes, the BofA Help Twitter account decided to jump in and asked @darthmarkh if he needed help with his account… completely ignoring the fact that @darthmarkh was eviscerating Bank of America right in front of its face.

In an effort to make sure to engage with everyone that reached out them, Bank of America automated its responses. So when other folks chimed in to continue to complain, guess what the Bank of America Twitter account did? Yep, ran through it’s entire list of pre-approved, empathetic, personally-signed tweets responding to them all. (If you want to see the whole insane back and forth, Gizmodo has a huge image of it here.

What does this mean for us? Well, first of all, don’t ever do that. Ever. Second, think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Do you need to be everything to everyone? Is there ever a time to engage less? (Yep, we talked about this yesterday.) This post on GovLoop highlights one of the real pitfalls of trying to be everything to everyone:

Both individuals and organizations who try to engage on too many platforms will find that it’s almost impossible to maintain that engagement without increased and/or dedicated resources. If they don’t increase their resource commitments, they are very likely to end up with abandoned digital properties and other digital detritus.

We need to focus on energy on where it’s most useful. If that means replying to every tweet that mentions you, then make sure you can support that. For most of us that’s not possible, so don’t set up a system that requires that. Don’t shortcut it. The public knows and with the viral nature of that social media you’re trying to exploit, well, let’s just say you don’t want to end up on Gizmodo.

2013 Retrospective: Ways To Survive

There are so many good prep videos out there it’s really tough to pick a favorite. But this would absolutely be near the top of the list. Designed by the City of Bellevue EMA, I was asked to help drum up interest and talk it up. I like to think that I helped contribute to the success of the video. But, I couldn’t be completely complimentary (and I think they might be mad at me about that), but the awesome video really exposed the rest of their digital presence as being a typical government website. I’m sure they’ll bring everything up to speed next year and blow the rest of us out of the water. In the meantime, this was the third-most popular post I’ve written.

I’m a huge advocate of getting away from traditional (read: boring) messaging techniques like fact sheets, text-heavy websites, the “general public,” the list goes on and on. And yet, we’re still not great at it. For lots of reasons, not least of which is we don’t really know what to do. We’ve always done things this way.

While I’ve tried to impress that you can change things up pretty easily with video shot in your office on a personal smartphone (and edited with a $5 app) with my video posts, using a new social media app like Instagram or Vine, talked about podcasting and iPhone reporting, sometimes you need to get real, live inspiration from your peers and not some yahoo blogger. You need something colorful, fun, interesting and chock full of good information. Something like this video, Ways to Survive, from the City of Bellevue, Washington.

It’s catchy, visually stimulating, and includes oodles of good information. This isn’t like some hurricane video that goes out of vogue for nine months of the year.

These are the ways to survive, gotta stay alive, have supplies and a master plan.

Full of good recommendations addressing kit development, winter supplies, earthquake response, CO safety, see something say something, among others. And, most importantly, it feeds into an opportunity to learn more, by directing folks to WaysToSurvive.Org.

I spoke to Sophia Le, who told me a bit about the background of the video:

This is in line with our new public education strategy, and took inspiration from Denis Mileti’s eternal comment “You need to sell [preparedness] like Coca-Cola.” This video is part of our new engagement focus–in the past, we’ve been pretty light on social media but think this is a great jump start into engaging content.

Some of the things we really like about this video are that it allows us to use social media to touch more people than a public educator usually could. It’s using song to get a message stuck in a person’s head, and it’s inviting citizens to come learn more about our programs.

I love the idea AND the execution. There’s just one thing, and it’s a problem not specific to this video. Similar to an overarching problem I have with most government campaigns: there’s not connection to reality. The video is awesome, and I’m going to pass it around to friends around the world, but what about the Bellevue, Washington EMA website? It looks, and I mean it exactly like this, like a government website. Text-heavy, small font, jargon-y, uninteresting. It’s the complete opposite of what the video is.

And maybe that’s where the problem with this type of thing comes in. Awesome efforts tend to highlight how poor the rest of our efforts are. And that’s frustrating.

But here’s the thing. Now that Bellevue has this great video, and they’ve established some kind of a brand associated with their efforts, they can remake their website and social media and other presences. They are THAT much ahead of where you are. The Ways to Survive video doesn’t point out how government-y their website looks, it highlights how government-y your efforts look.

We live in a world of super-crafty people who want to do good work. And every time they do something cool, our reliance on the old ways of communicating look more and more out-of-date. Places like Bellevue are leading the charge into real, engaging content that takes the best lessons from the private sector and are bringing it to government. Don’t get left behind!

2013 Retrospective: Get On Social Media

The Boston Marathon bombings. No one who pays any attention to the news, be it traditional or social, wasn’t seriously affected by this event. The kickoff to an absolutely insane week. Honestly, from afar, it felt like 9/11 again. What could possible happen next? The two main differences between then and Boston was that it was a series of small, local events (not counting the insane-o ricin story, which is still open) and social media. And from the first minutes after the bombs went off until Reddit’s ill-fated attempt to crowd-source finding the suspects and the FBI’s website crashing spectacularly, social media was a critical component of the week.

The best description of the utility of social media has made it into every presentation I’ve given since that week. The following is audio from Boston Police in the minutes after the bombs went off, and how useful they found social media. And while I think my stories are pretty good, having real, live audio is just amazing. You can’t get closer to the source than this.

Sometimes I worry that I write too much about social media on this blog. With events like H7N9 and the atrocity in Boston earlier this week, should I be focused more on the job that government communicators are doing: media relations, crafted statements, subject matter experts usage, press releases? But then events like H7N9 and the bombing happen, and there are such amazing lessons to be learned about how social media is influencing and remaking government communicators’ jobs that I literally can’t help myself. This is what government communicators’ jobs will be.

Since the Boston bombings are so fresh on everyone’s mind, I want to start there.

I don’t want to talk about how I found the first pictures of the scene FIVE minutes after the first bomb went off and informed my chain of command, who at first didn’t believe me because it wasn’t on any news sources yet.

I don’t want to talk about how we utilized our newly updated emergency public information plan that requires us to review all scheduled social media posts and cancel any inappropriate ones.


Instead, I want to talk about sweeping streets for secondary devices. If you followed the events on Monday afternoon, you’ll remember the frantic search of every package, bag and box in most of metro Boston. The Explosive Ordnance Tech (EOD) teams wanted everyone off the streets so they could work quickly without putting the public in harm’s way. This one-minute snip of a call came over the EMS radio talkgroup:

In the middle of the biggest emergency to hit Boston in years, with lives hanging in the balance, it was decided the best way to get information–critical, life-protecting information–to the public, where they were at the moment, was to, “get on social media.” Not tell the media, not issue a press release; when seconds counted and thousands needed to be warned, social media was the right tool. In different situations, something else may have worked better, but in this emergency social media was right choice.

2013 Retrospective: Communicating Risk Via Twitter

I love this post. This is one of my favorite stories because not only was it an absolute best practice in communicating risk, but I not only got to watch the City of Hoboken respond, but actually participated in the response. From Phoenix, Arizona. Way cool, and unfortunately, one of my stories that doesn’t get enough attention. This is my sixth most trafficked post, ever, and it’s a really good one.

I like to downplay the idea of a 24/7 newscycle. I think the term implies that you have lots of time to get involved in a situation because it’ll always be there. The media will always be beating down your door, so you’ve got time to craft an answer. Instead, I like to talk about the 10-second newscycle. In my mind, that term implies that you’ve got ten seconds in order to get your side of the story out; after that, you’re just part of the noise in someone else’s storyline.

My change in terminology leads, or should lead to, a re-examination of the tools we use to live and interact in that new newscycle. Press releases don’t really have the turnaround needed, and besides, they’re the worst position way to push out risk communication messages (e.g., do this, not that). Twitter, I like to think, works really well for a number of reasons. First, it’s direct: I, the communicator, am talking to you, the recipient. Second, it forces us to be short and direct: short messages have been shown to be more easily uptaken. Finally, it’s easily share-able: it’s easy to spread messages amongst target populations who’ve already set up information dissemination channels.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw one of the best examples of where social media, especially Twitter, could have been used to do real risk communication. The Hoboken, NJ water main breaks.

I happened to be in Phoenix at the time, presenting at the wonderful Arizona Partners in Preparedness conference when I found out about it on Twitter (social media monitoring for the win!). Because I work in public health, I’m always interested to see how large cities deal with boil water advisories, so I try to keep an eye on how things are going. The job that the City of Hoboken did was excellent starting with this:

2013 Retrospective: Skagit Bridge Social Media

As if you couldn’t tell my excitement for being able to host PIO Marcus Deyerin’s recounting of his response to the I-5 Skagit River Bridge Collapse, I’m going to highlight another of his wonderful posts. This one is all about how he vital social media was to his response that evening and lessons that he learned from being on the ground of a major transportation accident. There are things that everyone can learn from seeing this happen in real life. This was not only the second most commented upon post that I’ve ever had!

Skagit Bridge Collapse Personal Lessons Learned
Marcus Deyerin
Northwest Washington Incident Management Team

Twitter, by far, was the most valuable tool for me to provide information to the public and media. Although I lost my ability to make calls and send SMS messages, I was able to send Twitter messages throughout. However, I was not able to successfully send tweets with a photo attached in those first two hours or so. After my second unsuccessful attempt to send a tweet with a photo, I gave up and decided to focus on text only tweets, since I figured the news helicopters were providing ample visual coverage of the scene.

It was only the next day that I was able to survey my “@ mentions” where I saw several media who were trying to contact me directly. They wanted me to either call them for an interview (which obviously I couldn’t during the first couple of hours), or to follow them on Twitter so they could direct message me. For a single PIO, this is a conundrum, because you want to be available to the media and Twitter isn’t a bad platform for that, but trying to monitor the huge volume of traffic directed toward you in those early moments is close to impossible. This is where a virtual operation support team (VOST) could really be useful. I’ll talk more about how I could/should have utilized VOST in a section below.

A couple people have observed and questioned the wisdom in regards to me tweeting in an official capacity from my personal account – most notable among them Gerald Baron. I am in total agreement with Gerald that this was not ideal, and it’s not something I would want to do again. Here’s why it happened… the Twitter account (@NWIMT) for the regional incident management team I’m on is what I should have used. Unfortunately, my day-job home agency transitioned to a new email system last week, which subsequently required reconfiguring my mobile device (which wiped my Twitter account info). That occurred on Tuesday – and I simply hadn’t re-added the NWIMT account to my phone’s Twitter client. When I attempted to re-add it at the scene, I couldn’t remember the account password, so I just had to go with what I had – which was my personal Twitter account.

I offer the above not as an excuse, but rather explanation. The obvious lesson here is if you rely on a particularly critical tool for something, you can’t wait even a “few days” to get it back in place. Having said that, we all live in the real world, and that kind of thing is just going to happen. My personal account is the tool I had available to me, and again – while not ideal – it served the purpose of getting the information out during the critical period when timeliness was everything. In a crisis situation, flexibility and adaptability are key; and good now is better than perfect later.

Personal lessons learned:

  • Twitter reigned as the superior tool for getting information out rapidly to a broad audience. [Note to Twitter – please, please don’t do anything vis-a-vis your API or business model to mess this up for those of us in the emergency management field.]
  • Twitter worked when phone and SMS didn’t. That won’t be true in every situation, but it was interesting nevertheless.
  • Photos attached to tweets are great – but may not always work in a constrained data flow environment
  • Once the media calls started coming in, I was no longer able to tweet. If I need to do this again, I’ll direct media calls to a different phone I have, so I can take calls on one phone and use the other phone for tweets / social media
  • If you’re sending tweets with time-sensitive info, add your own time stamp (e.g. 1015hrs). I remembered the value of this about half-way through my own efforts
  • The public doesn’t care about “official” titles – they value the quality of the information being provided. That’s not to suggest we in official roles shouldn’t care about which account we use; but we do need to understand that the audience will go where the best information is coming from – so if you want to be the official and best source – then you better be providing the best information.

I had a couple of emergency management colleagues contact me through Twitter to see if there was anything they could do to help from afar. I want to extend my appreciation to those folks (you know who you are).

This concept of “digital support” enabled by technology is increasingly being utilized around the county and the world, and is known as a Virtual Operations Support Team. It’s already been explained and highlighted elsewhere by others far better than I ever could [<– Jim – maybe link to other blog posts about this?]. When that support was offered to me, I didn’t have the wherewithal to know what kind of assistance to request. But now with the benefit of retrospect, here’s what I should have asked for:

    • Monitor my Twitter @ mentions for media contact requests. I simply didn’t have time to check @ mentions, and then subsequently filter out media requests / questions from the overall stream of retweets. The VOST could compile and forward the relevant ones to me via email, which I could then either respond to directly, or forward to the appropriate agency specific PIO.
    • Monitor overall social media and traditional media coverage. Compile a list of Kik Usernames. What questions do people have that aren’t being effectively answered? Are there rumors or mis-information we need to address?
    • Establish and populate an incident specific website. In a multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional response, this is perhaps the single biggest need during the early hours of the incident, but also the biggest challenge. It’s easy enough to populate the content quickly, but you have to have an existing website place (or dark site ready to go), and on a server robust enough to handle the surge of traffic you’re likely to receive.
    • Help build a media cheat-sheet. On Friday morning my second task was to put together an Agency Point of Contact sheet for the media. I noticed a lot of reporters were asking the right questions of the wrong people, if for no other reason than because they weren’t entirely sure which agency had purview over a given subject. I listed every stakeholder agency involved, the POC and contact info, and the topics or issues for which that agency was the most qualified to answer. After the 12:30pm briefing on Friday, I handed this out to media and they seemed to really appreciate it. It would have been really helpful to have this at least started the night before.

I know there’s more a VOST could have probably helped with, but these are the things that stick out in my rearview mirror. While there are a number of excellent established VOST organizations out there, this is definitely a capability we’ll be looking to develop further within the IMT I serve on.


Tomorrow we’ll have Marcus back for an overview of his dealing with the media and coordinating with other agency PIOs. Stay tuned!

2013 Retrospective: Death To The Campaign

I had been planning to write about how I dislike how governments seem to have an over-dependence on campaign-based communications. Last year, I got the perfect opportunity when a great friend, Alex Bornkessel, posted something on exactly that topic. I thought it would be a simple post, but then my great British friends took over and have regularly flogged it to the top of my posts.

But it didn’t stop there. The incomparable Emma Rodgers posted a response a few months ago that didn’t exactly agree with me, and she makes some great points. Definitely be sure to read mine AND hers, found here.

When I started this Your Audience is a Lie thing, I was hoping to parlay it into a nice little series. Unfortunately, before I could finish it with my bold prediction of what your jobs as government communicators will look like in a few years, one of the smartest and most dedicated people I know in health communications beat me to the punch. Alex Bornkessel, who runs an amazing MS charity with her family, called for death to the campaign this past weekend and I couldn’t agree more.

This idea that campaign-focused communications actively works against our goals of affecting real change (whether it be health-focused, preparedness-focused, or some other goal) in two different ways. First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?)

The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?

Alex puts the problem into specific relief here, and even offers the solution we’ve been talking about:

Traditional mass media models that follow TV PSAs, direct mail, radio announcements and the like allow us to safely distance ourselves from the nitty-gritty hard work of transforming our world. It puts us a hands distance from actually interacting with and serving our people. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

Our work is no longer about building a one-and-done campaign, but about creating shared experiences and building movements. To build bridges, we have to walk side-by-side with those we want to not only reach, but truly engage.

Her post is called Shifting from Campaign to Cause, which is sublime in it’s understanding of the problem. If we really want to affect change, we have to believe that our message is good enough for everyone, whenever they are ready to hear it, and understand that they’ll have questions and concerns and complaints and praise, and that it’s part of our job to find those comments and questions important and valid and respond to them.

Honestly, if we’re not invested enough in our work to do that, why are we even messaging?

2013 Retrospective: Week Two, Most Engaging

Things are changing around here, and I wanted to highlight the best of the blog during December, 2013. The first week is devoted to my favorite guest posts and posters. The second week is devoted to my three most engaging posts. The third and fourth weeks count down my top six most trafficked posts, truly, the best of the best. These overview posts will have links to each of the posts for the week.

Stay tuned to all of my posts for the rest of the week as I highlight my top three, most engaging posts. On social media, we’ve started counting engagement as opposed to just followers. My most engaging posts, like those listed below, show how successful social media can be at stimulating a conversation and bringing people together.

First up, Dan Slee, local gov extraordinaire, loves this post on campaigns and why they should die. It is regularly shared in the storied halls of British local governments (or so I’m told).
Secondly, we talked about why you pay too much attention at conferences, and you should be livetweeting. This post got the most comments of any post that I’ve ever written.
Finally, the second most commented-on post I’ve written is courtesy of PIO Marcus Deyerin, whose series on the I-5 Skagit Bridge Collapse was highlighted last week during our celebration of guest posts. This post was all about how vital social media was to the response.

2013 Retrospective: Aphl And 9/11

This is just the first of an absolutely riveting walk through the events of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks that followed from the perspective of someone who was at the forefront of the nation’s response. It is one of my favorite series ever, and I was honored to be able to host it.

The following is a guest post by Scott J. Becker, MS, Executive Director, APHL. It is also available on the APHL blog here.

Everyone has a story of when their life changed forever. It could be before kids or after kids – or a traumatic life event like the death of a spouse, or a happy event like graduating from university. For an entire generation it was 9/11 and the anthrax events that soon consumed those of us in public health.

Like many of you, I remember exactly where I was when the towers fell. I was on my way to deliver a keynote address to the Mississippi Public Health Association and the topic was Branding Public Health. Upon landing in Atlanta, I called my hosts to let them know when I was due to land in Jackson, and heard that there was some “trouble” but that we should be in touch when I landed. I then started to pick up snippets of conversation around me, words that sent a chill down my spine. “Bombing… New York… Washington…” were just a few. I jumped back on the phone to call my wife to ask her to please go pick up our 5 month old daughter, Sophie, at daycare. You see, that very day was Sophie’s first full day in daycare, and the daycare center was a few blocks from the White House. I caught my wife back at home in Bethesda, who immediately turned on the TV, and then headed back downtown. I wandered the terminal for a minute or two, trying to wrap my head around what I was hearing and then called a colleague at CDC, realizing that I would be stuck in Atlanta. He offered me his office and I headed up after encountering the longest taxi line I’ve ever seen (I was quick; I got out in 20 minutes. Folks that waited longer
were there most of the day).

Once I got to CDC it was apparent what had transpired. And then CDC was evacuated, as it was deemed a possible target by the unknown enemies. We had now moved into our new life, but were too numb to understand it. Soon thereafter I checked into a hotel, and joined many others glued to a TV. We were a new “family” of sorts, all of us
stuck together in this unfolding national tragedy. I was finally able to get a call back to my wife and was relieved to learn that she had gotten Sophie out of DC, even before the Pentagon was attacked. Sitting there, I learned that my flight that morning left Dulles the same time as the one used by the terrorists that flew into the

Hearing that sent me into action; I needed to get home. Through divine intervention and many phone calls, I secured a one-way car rental the next day. Virginia’s lab director Jim Pearson, APHL staff Jeff Jacobs (now with ASCP) and I drove straight home. No planes in the sky; no cars on the road; patriotic signs on many overpasses from
Georgia to Maryland. After 12 hours of travel we came over a small hill on 395 in Arlington and looked down on the smoldering black hole in the Pentagon complete with the American flag… and the quiet almost desolate city of Washington just beyond.

What I couldn’t quite grasp was exactly how our world was now completely different. There were Humvees on every corner, security officers with guns and policemen… just about everywhere. Our city, like New York, was transformed overnight. So were our professional lives, particularly for those of us working in public health.

At APHL, we’d been focused on lab preparedness for terrorism since 1999, when we constructed the Laboratory Response Network (LRN) with CDC and the FBI. But on this day, September 12, 2001, the once obscure threat was palpable; it was real. We worked with CDC to ensure that all the state labs had the tests, materials and equipment they needed
in case a threat was made to human health in some sort of attack. We made sure that all of the contact lists were accurate and that we knew with whom to consult if needed. The LRN went onto a high state of alert – we were on the lookout for any suspicious samples or specimens. Our members were told to report anything out of the ordinary, no matter how small it seemed. Everyone was on edge, and for good reason. News reports were issued daily (for weeks) and used terms like “biological or chemical warfare,” “possible use of bioweapons,” “biowarfare,” or “smallpox.” And then the question was being asked first privately and then publicly: “Are we prepared?” That question is still with us and always will be – the real question is for what and for how long?

Vice President Cheney was particularly concerned as President Bush had asked him upon his inauguration to take charge of overseeing intelligence matters and to conduct a study of the nation’s vulnerability to biological weapons and terrorism in general. One vulnerability identified was access to dangerous pathogens such as anthrax, plague and pandemic strains of influenza viruses. And public health labs had access.

On October 2nd, all the possibilities of bioterrorism became a reality. It was on that day that an infectious disease physician recognized a possible case of inhalational anthrax in a man who was hospitalized in Palm Beach, FL. The local health official immediately began an investigation which included having the patient’s clinical
specimen sent to a lab for diagnosis. The clinical lab couldn’t rule out anthrax, so according to protocol, they contacted Dr. Phil Lee, the Biological Defense Coordinator for the Bureau of Laboratories at the Florida Department of Health Lab in Jacksonville. Once he received the specimen (On Wednesday October 3rd at noon) he began the analysis immediately. The series of tests took less than 24 hours, and early on Thursday October 4th he confirmed what is now known as the index case of anthrax. All eyes were on Florida as the index case worked and lived there, and CDC was sending investigators to his work place, AMI Media, to figure out how this could have happened.

Since the Florida anthrax case followed the 9/11 attacks so closely, it was unclear what we were dealing with, but we were at the ready.

2013 Retrospective: Skagit River Bridge Collapse

Marcus Deyerin is a good friend. Marcus is also one of the smartest, most forwarded thinking emergency response PIOs in the US. His account of the response to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River was not only riveting, it was full of best practices. Not best practices like you should do this and that, but instead best practices like this is how I did it and it worked. These posts should be required reading for EMA PIOs.

Skagit Bridge Collapse Personal Lessons Learned
Marcus Deyerin
Northwest Washington Incident Management Team

Initial Response
A few people have asked me how I was possibly on-scene so quickly. Pure coincidence. My son participates in an athletic activity about a mile from the bridge collapse scene. I heard one, then two, then multiple sirens – and you don’t have to be an emergency manager type for that to get your attention. I opened up a radio scanner app I have, and the first words I heard were “I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River…”. I didn’t need to hear it again for confirmation – the number of sirens in the air was confirmation enough. I immediately grabbed my son and we headed to the scene. I knew exactly how to get there quickly since it’s a route I often run while my son is at his activity.

When I arrived, I quickly recognized the on-scene incident commander, the local fire chief and a former team member on the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team (NWIMT). I let him know I was there, but then just stepped back and stayed out of his way. After about 15-20 minutes I again approached the IC and asked if I could help in any way. That’s when he remembered my PIO role on the IMT and asked if I’d be willing to fulfill that function there on-scene.

With phones not working and the “field” nature of the scene, Twitter was the obvious and best platform for communicating information to the public. I spent about 3 minutes trying to get my team Twitter account functioning (more on that below), and then gave up and just started tweeting incident information from my personal account.

Phone and SMS
The phone system was impacted quickly (which I expected), but much more broadly than I would have anticipated. My colleague who was located up in Bellingham reported trouble making phone calls about the same time I lost my ability to call out. Here’s what my notes and phone logs reflect:

6:55pm – bridge collapses
7:10pm – I arrive on scene (estimated)
7:12pm – Outbound call successful (work phone)
7:30pm – Assigned as PIO by on-scene incident commander
7:31pm – First Twitter post sent from scene
7:37pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
7:48pm – Outbound call attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
8:09pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (work phone)

I’ve omitted a few redundant attempts from the timeline above for brevity’s sake – but you get the gist.

8:38pm – Washington State Patrol district PIO provides my phone number to media via tweet
8:40pm – First incoming media call
12:03am (Friday) – Last incoming media call before WSDOT took lead as incident PIO.

Personal lessons learned:

  • I don’t normally care for them, but in this situation I really wished I had a bluetooth earpiece for the phone.
  • We (emergency management) have been telling people for some time now that even when the phone lines are overwhelmed, SMS might still work. I think we need to emphasize the “might” element. In this instance, both SMS and phone connectivity started working again in the immediate area within 90 minutes or so. But that’s a long time if it’s your only way to communicate.


Tomorrow, Marcus will be talking about social media during the response, specifically Twitter and a bit about virtual support teams (VOST).