Ep 15: #7 How will Public Information be Managed? - "10 Questions from the Mayor" Series

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Bill Godfrey:

Hello, and welcome back to our continuing podcast series on ten questions that the mayor should ask the police chief or the fire chief together, or any elected official, city manager, county manager. My name is Bill Godfrey, I'm one of the instructors with C3 Pathways, a retired fire chief. With me today, I've got Don Tuten, he's chief with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office, over see's homeland security. Don, thanks for joining us today.
We also have Ron Otterbacher. Ron is a retired division chief with the Orange County Sheriff’s office. Ron, thanks for taking the time to join us. Good to have you here.And last but not least, we have Joe Ferrara, retired fire chief, paramedic from south Florida, from Martin County. Joe, thanks for being here today.
So guys, our question today, we're on number seven, which is how will public information and social media be managed real time during the response? You know Don, I think I'd like to start with you. Is this really a problem?

Don Tuten:

It is, and this is something that we try to get ahead of in the very beginning, and we practice this by using our PIO's (Public Information Officer), getting together in JIC (Joint Information Center), even for all of our preplanned events. So they all know each other, they all have the opportunity to work together, so when we do have that major incident go out, as you know Bill, information moves at the speed of light because everybody is on Twitter or Facebook Live. And when there's multiple messages being put out over social media, it's really imperative that the city entity, whether it be police, fire, a combination of both, as well as the mayor's office, have one message that is put out, and the correct information in a timely manner, because such misinformation gets put out so quick. Unfortunately, your media outlets, as well as unknown information gets put out there to parents, let's say if it does involve kids or other businesses, we want to get that information out, the true information out as quick as possible and be as informative as possible in a timely manner.

Bill Godfrey:

So Ron, I know that you've done a lot of work with schools over the years. Are there any particular challenges on that front with social media and you know, the kids having cell phones and instant access to the parents? Has that impacted our response at school events?

Ron Otterbacher:

It absolutely has. We've got to remember that most of the kids, especially in school events, their number one focus isn't dialing 911, it's dialing mom or dad. They want to get the information that either their okay or they're in trouble. We've got to manage that information and we've got to understand the flow of that information, because it may tell us that I've got 25 people sending messages from the gymnasium of that school, and that'll tell us we may have a pocket of people that are sitting there waiting to be rescued in some fashion. So it's all critical. Used to be, the school wouldn't allow use of cell phones, but they even recognize that it's so important, especially in these types of situations. Now everyone lets them have the cell phones in the schools.

Bill Godfrey:

So, before I jump over to EMS, does this have implications for you guys at the perimeter line when you're trying to get security wrapped around an active shooter event? Don, Ron, what are the implications of... You know, I'm a parent. In fact, we all are, and I know every time I get a message from my daughter that even when it's a drill it gives me that anxiety level. And the natural reaction I think of most parents is to try to get to their kid very quickly, but how does that turn into a challenge for us, or does it?

Don Tuten:

You know, it does and it doesn't. I think it's imperative on each agencies dispatchers as well as command staff to work properly with that police information consortium, whether it be through the Joint JIC (Joint Information Center) or the PIO (Public Information Officer), to push that information out over the radio to those officers working the perimeter to give that information so when you do have walk ups of, "Hey, this is where you need to go, this is a reunification place, this is the information to call, either a hospital, this is the online information that we're updating by every minute," and that's the information that we have to inform our officers and our EMS folks and those people that are on the perimeter to be able to push out. And if we fail to do that, then we're just slowing the timeline on getting that information out.

Ron Otterbacher:

Parents are a lot like the media. If you don't control the media, the media will control you. If you don't control the parents, they will control you, because they are going to get to their children, the word they’re in trouble. And if you're not prepared to handle them or give them an assignment, tell them where to go, start getting ready for the children to arrive, then they will be trying, however they can, get into where the target area is.

Bill Godfrey:

Interesting. It really is fascinating how much the impact of social media and cell phones have really changed the emergency response. Joe, let's talk a little bit on the EMS side. You know, one of the challenges, obviously, for us on EMS is we've transported people, where are they, and try accounting for them. Talk a little bit about some of the challenges and pitfalls and maybe some of the potential ways to help or solutions.

Joe Ferrara:

So this is where integration is extremely important. I know Don spoke earlier about the PIO's (Public Information Officer) working together in a JIC (Joint Information Center), and of course, and especially from the city manager's perspective, that city manager should be asking the PIO from the police agency, the PIO from the fire agency and there may even be a city PIO, that they all work together and that they all work together and craft one message, and it is approved through incident command. That is paramount to this process so that the fire department is not going off with one set of information, and the police department is going off with another set of information. Maybe we haven't talked or integrated and maybe private information is being share that shouldn't be. Certainly fire and EMS is well aware of privacy issues, but as fire and EMS, are we aware of investigative issues that law enforcement has? Maybe it's not a good idea to release certain information because it's sensitive intelligence. We won't know that as fire and EMS, unless we partner and integrate with law enforcement. And law enforcement won't know what patient information to release or not to release, unless there's integration between the two.

Bill Godfrey:

And I think one of the classic challenges is, you post the hotline phone number, and you get phone calls from people who are purportedly concerned family members, how do you vet that? How do you determine that there's a reasonable probability they are who they say they are, and then provide information about their loved ones or provide information about where the hospitals have transported, or which hospital the patients have been transported to. One of the frustrating parts of that is that you can't always take people at face value. I know one of our other instructors talked about the Southern land Springs shooting and his own personal experience with really what borders on almost unethical conduct on the side of the press in trying to get access to information and trying to figure out who had gone where and then sending reporters to the hospitals, which created some tough issues.
So it's certainly some tough challenges. You can't just post names out there on social media, but you've got to be able to kind of correct the misinformation and of course for EMS, you got to walk that fine line on privacy, as do the hospitals. Don, Je - I'm sorry. Don and Ron, have you guys run into any really good ways of approaching handling security at the hospitals or how to handle identifying who's there or who isn't there? Don?

Don Tuten:

Yeah. So in my agency where we're at, the watch commanders automatically that work those areas where there's trauma centers are, they train and we unfortunately have events that involve police officers as well as larger events that we had. For instance, the mass shooting at the landing, we actually send those officers there to manage a scene that is a whole separate scene. And what they do, is they work with our PIO's, they're given the information on where family members can go to, what credentials or information they need to bring with them, for us to be able to release that information.
The city where I'm from, we also have our services division that works with survivors as well as victims, and then we utilize them by working together to vet the proper people that come in to release the proper information at the right time. And then we also, like I said, by having the officers there, we have that security element in place to ensure that runs smoothly.

Bill Godfrey:

You know, something you just said in there made me think, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), who is of course responsible for investigating plane crashes and those issues, has call centers that are designed and trained with people for asking those kinds of questions and vetting those information. Probably a good model for us to look at as responders, but I think the moral of the story is that, not only do you have to manage the message through your joint information center with all your PIO's on the same page, but you've got to have a plan for dealing with social media real time as the event is unfolding. The PIO is no longer an after thought that's an hour later. The PIO has a role almost as quick as the incident kicks off in communicating that information to the public. Final thoughts, Ron?

Ron Otterbacher:

And remember it's important to use your resources. If you've got a regional fusion center, use that because they can monitor the social media traffic and they can help you get ahead of it, because if you don't get ahead of it, you're going to be trying to catch up the entire time.

Bill Godfrey:

Joe, final thoughts?

Joe Ferrara:

Yeah. I think it's really important not only, you know, we already talked about integrating the PIO's into a JIC, we talked about how to deal with this at a hospital, but the really important thing for police chiefs and fire chiefs and city managers, is have policies and have joint policies that address these. Have good solid social media policies in place, because not only are the people at the scene going to use social media, your responders are. And unless you get in front of that and control that with a policy and proper training, the information is just going to run wild. So, my advice to those chief officers is to get those policies in place, especially on social media and release of information, and practice it.

Bill Godfrey:

I think that's a great point, alright. Gentlemen, thank you very much for taking the time to talk out to talk about this one. We're going to wrap that one up there, and we hope y'all will join us for the next series, which is our question number eight, what are you doing with community partners regarding active shooter hostile events? Thank you very much for joining us.

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