- Back-up power was critical. I’ve carried around a NewTrent 12KmAh backup charger in my PIO bag for several months, and used it a couple times prior, but this is the first time it seriously saved my bacon. I recharged my phone from near dead 3 times over the course of my involvement during the response. It’s worth every penny. [There are certainly other brands/models out there - this is just the one I have]
- Good shoes / boots are important. Most responder types normally wear these, but I was a little surprised by how many people I saw who were wearing what I would consider “questionable” footwear. It’s the rare exception when I’m not wearing my RedWing 406s, but I was really glad I had them that night there on the riverbank.
- Food matters! It’s a cliche about bad food – or rather – food that’s bad for you (e.g. donuts, candy, etc.) in an emergency operations center, and this was certainly no exception. We did have access to some veggies and other good food as well, but it takes a disciplined soul to avoid overdosing on the sweets in stressful environment. But it really does make a difference. If there’s not enough healthy food where you’re at, ask for some, or go get your own.
- “And that’s why you always carry a flashlight!” Really…this applies to anyone, anytime, anywhere. My current personal favorite for everyday carry is a Fenix LD12, and I use it every single day.
- PIO armband (or hat, or vest, etc) – something to clearly mark yourself as the PIO. Wish I’d had one – would have made getting the attention of the media at the scene a lot easier. It’s now on my to-do list.
- Orange vest, or dedicated yellow jacket. Having one of those inexpensive lightweight vests in your go-bag is a good idea. Some people have dedicated neon jackets (which are also nice) – but which may not be comfortable in warmer environments.
My big mistakes (Ed. note: Even Marcus made some, but in the grand scheme of things, these were minor. It’s good that we acknowledge those mistakes so we can learn from them.)
There are two incidents for which I carry some angst. The first came around 8:45pm, when the third media phone call I received came from a student reporter for The Western Front, the campus paper for Western Washington University. [Full disclosure: I am periodically contracted by WWU as an adjunct instructor]. This student reporter of course wanted to ask about the bridge collapse. I don’t specifically recall where the first two media calls were from, but they were what I was expecting (regional or national news agencies). I knew the other regional and national agencies were probably getting a busy signal at that very moment, and I panicked. I told the student that I had to step into a quick meeting, and I’d try to call him back.
That’s right… I lied. It wasn’t a fib, it wasn’t a white lie; it was an outright damn lie.
And I feel horrible about it. But here’s the truth – I would do it again (put him off until later) – although here’s what I hope I would say next time: “I would very much like to answer your questions right now, but I need to focus on those news agencies that are going to reach the broadest audiences at this very moment. Please give me your phone number so I can call you back later tonight.”
My clumsy ducking of this erstwhile student reporter was the only untruth I knowingly spoke during this incident. But as the subsequent media calls came in, I found myself semi-consciously assessing these various news organizations against the audiences I felt were most important in those early hours. Obviously, my priority “customers” of information were every commuter that traveled on I-5 through Skagit County, whether that was for work, travel/vacation, shopping, freight transport, etc. Then of course there was the immediate implications for the surrounding communities – which was already experience a significant traffic spike as I-5 was detoured into their side streets and roads. Nevertheless, I didn’t cut short any other media calls that night (even the one from Japan), perhaps if for no other reason than because of my lingering guilt about the student reporter.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer when it comes to prioritizing who you talk to or in what order. Every reporter is important, but truthfully, some audiences are more important than others.
Daniel – or whatever your name is – if you’re reading this, I am sincerely sorry, and I’ll figure out a way to make it up to you. Get in touch.
My second big screw-up came around 11:30pm or so. A producer for one of the regional news radio programs (KOMO I think) called and asked if I could do a live interview at 5:45am the next morning. “Sure!” I said. “I put it on my calendar [mobile device] – so just call me at this number.” Except I didn’t get their number to call back if there was an problem. At around 1:30am Friday morning, WSDOT took over as lead PIO for the incident. This transition wasn’t as smooth as it should have been, the outcome being that I didn’t inform the new PIO about the commitment I’d made to KOMO radio. That oversight and mistake was entirely mine. By the time I got to the nearby home of a colleague who had offered me a bed for what remained of the night, my exhausted brain simply forgot. I turned off my work phone (knowing my team still has my personal phone # if they really need me), and was asleep by about 3:10am.
At 5:57am Friday morning, I sat straight up in bed. I never wake up like that. But my brain knew what I’d done, and I grabbed my phone off the bedside table. Sure enough, six missed phone calls from KOMO. I tried calling the number back, but ended up in a generic mailbox. Finally at 6:28am they called again. ” Hi, this is [?] from KOMO radio…”. I apologized profusely, explained I was no longer the appropriate person to do the interview, and then provided them the contact info for the new POC (which unbeknownst to me had already changed by then). Again, I felt horrible, but they were very gracious and understanding, “hey, don’t worry about it. It happens.”
Your most important support resource
If you are in any job where the phone might ring in the middle of the night and you’re expected to respond, then you probably already know that your family is your most important personal asset, followed closely by your friends and trusted colleagues. While I had been able to give my wife a heads up about the bridge collapse while I was on my way to it, by the time it was clear I’d become involved in the response both the phones and SMS were down. Even though I couldn’t call out, fortunately I was able to receive a call from a friend who was out of state at the time wanting to know if I’d heard about “this bridge collapse thing.” I very quickly asked him to call my wife, tell her to come pick up my son, and where to find us. When she arrived, she said, “Grab your bag out of the back.” I had completely forgotten to ask her to bring my incident deployment bag (the big one with extra clothes, sleeping bag, etc.). But she hadn’t forgotten. She had my back, she knew what I would need, and most importantly, I knew I didn’t have to worry she’d be upset if she didn’t hear from me anytime soon. She’s got it covered.
As the PIO you often end up as the face of your organization. I’ve always felt if that happens, then I’m not doing it right. I’m from the school that 95% of the PIO’s job is to coordinate information from behind the camera. But in this instance, it was the other 5% that characterized my participation that first night. In either case, the PIO is one member of an otherwise large team, and that team places an enormous amount of trust in you to accurately represent their efforts and work towards “fixing the problem.” That’s where the real magic happens – inside the incident command post, or the emergency operations center, or on the hood of a truck, or right there on the river bank.
I am privileged to work with a truly exceptional group of people on the NWIMT, and I value their trust in me. Fourteen NWIMT members were activated for this response, and served in critical roles. I’d especially like to acknowledge our team incident commanders Tod Gates (Interim Fire Chief for the City of Lynnwood), and Brad Reading (Assistant Chief Snohomish County Fire District 1) who were the last members of our team to demobilize. I also want to thank Mount Vernon Fire Battalion Chief Mike Voss, the on-scene incident commander, for the opportunity to support their efforts in those early hours.
Finally (no really – I’m almost done!), no list of gratitude would be complete without acknowledging the volunteer organizations that support both responders and the public affected by these types of incidents. The local chapter of the American Red Cross made sure we were all fed and hydrated at the incident scene, and the number of volunteer search and rescue teams on standby was astounding.
So that’s my story. All things considered, our regional community was pretty lucky. Yes, we’re going to have a traffic problem for awhile; and yes, there are likely to be some significant economic consequences as a result, which will have a direct region-wide impact on large and small businesses alike. But the fact that we had no loss of life or more extensive injuries given the severity of the damage or the time of day is truly remarkable.
My role in this incident response was minor and brief, but it was certainly a significant experience for me personally. If you’re a seasoned PIO, you already know all this stuff; maybe you’ve even learned it the hard way. But if you’re a new PIO, I hope what I’ve shared gives you a few more tidbits to jot down in your notebook.
I just want to stand back and thank Marcus for so many things. Allowing me to post his thoughts on what was an amazing, successful, live-saving response. And for his role in that response. He is, and has always been a professional’s professional, and I’m honored to be his friend.
He’s asked me a few times to tone down the, “best practice,” and, “one-of-a-kind,” language I’ve been using to describe what he did, but truthfully I cannot. While others have responded as successfully as he did, and utilized new technologies and tools like he did, no one has been as open and public and forthcoming with their lessons learned as he has been.
No one’s response was tracked by so many people around the world, not just for how the response was going, but for how his actions were being done. He responded to the bridge collapse with not only the eyes of the media watching him, but nearly the entire emergency management field. Much like the public, we now train our eyes and cameras and Twitter accounts on the responders and pass judgement not only on the response, but the manner in which it’s being conducted. Truly, what we say now is as important as what we do.
Thanks again Marcus.