The PIO must be able to function within an emergency management team and possess the unique ability to work with the media on a daily basis and during crisis situations. This of course requires the PIO to be intimately familiar with the Incident Command System (ICS).
Mr. Caulder also pointed out that, as first responders, we owe it to our communities to prepare and plan in advance for incidents such as this. During my military days I learned early that “proper prior planning and preparations prevents poor performance.”
An important part of this preparation and planning is the advanced identification of the need for a Public Information Officer (PIO) to be immediately activated once an incident of magnitude is identified — such as an Active Shooter incident). A PIO on scene and assigned to your incident will not only help disseminate information to the vested agencies involved, but can help your tactical operations as well. The PIO position is an important aspect of your operation, is a National Incident Management System (NIMS) position — actually part of the incident command staff — and should be embraced by the Incident Commander (IC).
During an Active Shooter incident at a school — which we will refer to as “The Valley Incident” — family and friends received much of their initial information, related to the incident, from the media, social media or by listening to information on police scanners. They did not receive initial details from the primary law enforcement, fire, rescue agency nor the school or school district involved.
Upon hearing the information — media, student social media, scanner traffic — parents flocked to the school and a police substation, causing access and operational issues for first responders at the incident scene. Later, much of the initial information shared by students, community members and the news media and overheard on scanners was determined to be erroneous; adding additional workload to dispatchers who spent hours trying to dispel rumors and provide accurate instructions to parents on the reunification location and process.
A hot-wash following the incident showed that the failure to disseminate proactive information, as soon as possible with stake holders such as parents, community, students, teachers and media, added to the chaos and allowed the situation on scene to spiral out of control.
I worked the 2015 Christmas Eve shooting incident at North Lake Mall in Charlotte, and the scene was very dynamic with emergency vehicles parked everywhere, Media walking throughout the scene taking pictures and interviewing witnesses. An officer involved shooting that immediately stopped the threat, quickly spiraled out of control to a rumored Active Shooter incident in a busy mall.
Public Information Officer Responsibilities
During an incident, the PIO position should be filled, immediately and typically depends on what agencies are working the incident. A good practice is to have all first responder agencies work together with one primary PIO assigned. His or her priority responsibility is to prepare and disseminate information about the incident, size, cause and a current situation report Â— without interfering with tactical operations — and what is being done to ensure the safety of those involved.
It is OK to acknowledge the incident and to be as factual as possible without causing panic, worry or interfering with first responders. The PIO must be quick to engage as any hesitation to acknowledge or share information will find you behind the media microburst (incudes Social Media). There WILL be a microburst and it’s better to get in front of it immediately than play catch-up to erroneous reports. Like I mentioned last year in another column, the public is there when the erroneous reports first come out; but are usually gone by the time the story is corrected.
If the incident involves a school, a private business or a government facility — it is important to partner with their communications team as soon as possible to make sure you have a common, clear message. However, if they’re delayed in responding or joining your team, do not wait for them. Remember, you need to be in front of the media microburst with factual, timely information and ensuring the public that first responders are on scene working hard to mitigate the emergency.
Arriving On Scene
Once the PIO arrives, he or she must find the IC and receive a quick briefing. Be prepared — most likely you’re going to have to ask the IC questions. Not all ICs know exactly what information you need. According to the Emergency Management Institute, be prepared to ask:
- What is the current situation?
- What are your incident objectives?
- What actions and resources are being used to achieve these objectives?
- Are there warnings or other critical messages that need to be communicated to the public?
- Is there any restriction on the information to be released?
- Has the media arrived on scene or have you been contacted by them yet?
- Are there any other instructions?
Once you receive the information from the IC, it’s time to get to work! The PIO should immediately began working on:
- Determining what information is to be communicated with the public.
- Creating a clear, concise message that can easily be understood by various audiences.
- Ensuring all of this information is accurate (fact check).
- Identify how your messaging should be conveyed.
- Coordinating with adjacent agencies and PIOs so that the messages shared are consistent across the board.
The PIO or their designee needs to identify and communicate a Media staging point as soon as possible. This point must be in a safe location, away from the incident command post and preferably somewhere that tactical operations are not prevalent to the media so they cannot film operations or offer play-by-play to their viewers as suspects could also be watching the news.
To keep the media and the public informed, control rumors and erroneous information. The PIO should schedule regular media briefs at the media staging point. The most important information that a PIO can provide is the reunification process of families as this will help establish focus to those affected, reduce panic and desperation while also helping to reassure the families that there is a process in place to ensure everyone is safe and to reunite them as soon as possible. See Tweet from the Orlando Police Department regarding their reunification plan for families following the Pulse nightclub shooting this past June.
Public Information in Real Time
Notification and warnings are key messages that the PIO should consider as they respond to the scene. As mentioned previously, it is OK to acknowledge the incident. The PIO should immediately recommend that the agencies involved activate an alerting system. This ensures that the public knows what is going on, that first responders are aware and responding as well as provide the public what steps they need to take to remain safe.
It could be as simple as avoiding a certain area, or locking down in place or to “run, hide, fight.” Follow-up messaging can occur via Social Media, TWITTER is a fantastic vehicle for this quick, real time update. Take a look at the real time Tweet that Howard County Police (MD) sent out after a mall shooting.
As I mentioned previously and as Tracy mentioned in his previous article; planning is very important. Remember: proper prior planning and preparations prevents poor performance. It’s never too early to start planning, discussing and identifying how you’re going to handle a similar incident in your jurisdiction. Developing a community-specific Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) is recommended.
Part of this plan should specifically call for immediate PIO activation on large scale incidents. As part of this EOP, the PIO should already have established, predetermined relationships with local media and how you are going to communicate with them. Equally as important is the relationships with other agency PIOs. For dynamic and extended incidents like we’re discussing today, one should consider the use of a Joint Information System (JIS). The JIS is made up of other agency PIOs and will help coordinate the flow of incident specific information across the various agencies that are involved. Essentially the JIS is defined as a “well-controlled, information-sharing plan.”
Part of the JIS is the Joint Information Center (JIC) to not confuse you, I’ll explain it this way. The JIS is the process of working together, sharing information and messaging. The JIC is the actual physical location of where this whole process operates. The JIC may occur right there on scene, spread-out across the trunk of several vehicles or it may operate in an adjacent room to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The later example is used often for extended multi-operational period incidents; such as an aviation disaster, an Active Shooter Incident, a wild fire, a hurricane, a Super Bowl or the Democratic National Convention to name a few.
It is OK for a PIO to have pre-planned messages ready to go. I have multiple, pre-written messages for different incident types stored on an encrypted Dropbox account (https://www.dropbox.com). NOTE: here are many remote share drives that you can also choose to use. That way I can grab them remotely, fill in details and send them out. I have the Dropbox APP on my iPhone, iPad and my laptop for ease of access and use in any situation or location I find myself in.
The PIO must be able to function within an emergency management team and possess the unique ability to work with the media on a daily basis and during crisis situations. This of course requires the PIO to be intimately familiar with the Incident Command System (ICS). I recommend that every PIO attend and complete the following NIMS courses offered through the Emergency Management Institute and or your local emergency management team: IS-100, IS-200, ICS-300, ICS-400, IS-700, IS-702, IS-800, IS-00242.a, IS-29, and IS-42 to begin with.
I also recommend some additional courses. I found these to be extremely helpful to me as a PIO and also afforded me the opportunity to network and meet other agency PIOs from across the country: G-290 Basic PIO Course, G-291 JIS/JIC Planning Course, IMT-PIO All-Hazards PIO Course, PER-304 Social Media for Natural Disaster Response and Recovery Course, and the NC Fire Life Safety Educator Courses (Series I-III).
I’m sure this list is a bit overwhelming, however this is something you can slowly tackle over time, learning and growing as you go.
Bill Suthard is the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the Huntersville Fire Department. The Huntersville Fire Department is a three-station fire department covering 62 square miles in northern Mecklenburg County.