Public Information During Disasters or Emergencies

A picture of a red sun, veiled by wildfire smoke, going down over a large burned area in Eastern Montana. A teepee on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is in the distance.

If a disaster or emergency were to hit your community, would your organization be prepared? 

We all saw this play out with COVID-19. While it wasn’t a traditional “disaster,” many of the same players were called to the forefront to address the issue. Many organizations, including government, nonprofits, and even businesses, came together to try to make sense of it all, especially in the beginning. 

As someone who saw this play out, I realized there were many ways it was no different from a wildfire, or an oil spill, or a law enforcement emergency, especially when it comes to public information. 

With public information, the goal is always to get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions. Often, there is little to no plan for public information before something happens, and everyone is left scrambling. 

In my experience with state and local government, law enforcement, and fire in rural states and communities, there are things I’ve seen they all have in common. First, in many small counties, officials wear many hats. These places often have small tax bases, meaning they don’t have much money, and it is challenging to plan for everything.

However, getting the public information they need promptly typically saves time in the long run. This, in turn, allows responders more time to focus on the issue at hand. 

There are a few things officials can do to better prepare regarding public information in the event of a disaster. Of course, everyone in your organization that could play a role should take ICS-100 and ICS-700 at a minimum. After all, if people don’t understand the Incident Command System, it is guaranteed they won’t know how to follow it. 

Picture of a crowd and Governor being briefed on a wildfire in front of a huge map of the fire.
Briefing the Governor of Montana, as well as cooperators and stakeholders.

Speak with one voice

Mixed messages coming from multiple sources are the fastest way to lose public trust and confuse people. And this is the best-case scenario. The worst case is that it can potentially put people’s lives in danger. To remedy this, here are a few suggestions for pre-planning:

  1. Identify who is the lead agency for specific situations. If it’s a law enforcement emergency, let it be law enforcement. If it’s an earthquake, perhaps it’s Disaster and Emergency Services. Wildfires? Pandemic? Flooding? Know who is in charge of the incident and, therefore, the message. Then identify who the public information officers are within each entity. 
  2. Know ahead of time how the information will be shared and what the official source will be. If law enforcement is the lead, it will make sense that they are releasing information to the media, posting to social media, and taking phone calls. At the start of an incident, clearly articulate the lead. The other entities can then share the message, ensuring it is consistent. 
  3. Make sure nobody is “free-lancing.” In other words, only share information approved by the lead Public Information Officer who should be working closely with the Incident Commander.

In many instances, consider a Unified Command, or at the very least a Joint Information System/Joint Information Center (JIS/JIC). This ensures all PIOs are communicating and releasing the correct information.

I was on a wildfire recently with my incident management team, and we saw several of these issues play out. The most potentially dangerous was number three. The incident management team was delegated authority over the fire. It therefore should have been the official source of fire information. However, there were many organizations and even individuals putting out information independently that could have potentially had dire consequences if it had been wrong. 

A picture of two yurts set up at a fire camp.
If there is a delegation of authority to an incident management team, it’s important to follow the proper chain-of-command.

Have a contact list

In the middle of an emerging incident, nothing sucks precious time more than trying to chase down information, including phone numbers and emails. Have a way to get in touch with fellow responders quickly. 

A few years ago, a wildfire north of my town had the potential to threaten the city. It was in an adjoining county and was putting up a lot of smoke and alarming the public. While officials from both counties knew each other and often attended meetings together, it turns out there were many who didn’t have everyone’s phone numbers. Having phone numbers would have allowed for quick communication, streamlining the messages to the public.

This is very low-hanging fruit for potentially mitigating issues in the middle of an incident. 

Figure out your key players. Is it the fire chiefs, sheriff, disaster and emergency services, state or federal agencies? If you have a river running through your area, consider if there is potential for oil spills or other environmental disasters, and figure out who would be working on such an incident. Trust me; when the rubber meets the road, you will be happy to have that list of phone numbers. Additionally, make sure everyone on the list has the list. 

Picture of a dirt road with burned ground on both sides from a wildfire.
When an incident occurs, make sure all the right people are being notified in a timely manner.

Have a call down tree

If something happens, know who notifies who. I’ve often experienced public information officers being notified too late, almost as an afterthought. This is usually too late, and agencies are then already way behind on messaging. 

A military public affairs officer once told me, “PIOs are only as effective as the information given to them by the people that know what is happening on the ground.” 

Make sure those responding on the ground know how important it is to get out public information immediately. If the information is delayed, the public begins filling in the blanks with rumors, hearsay, and misinformation.

Make sure you are in charge of your message and are acting, not reacting. 

Have a call-down tree that expressly shows who should notify the PIO of an incident. Ideally, this would be the incident commander or designee since, in the ICS, the PIO is attached to the IC. 

Final Thoughts

While public information encompasses much more than this, hopefully, you can implement these things with minimal effort. These suggestions may seem like common sense, but I am amazed at how often these things are overlooked.

Emergencies and disasters are stressful enough. Beforehand, know who is in charge of public information and how to get ahold of that person. Make sure everyone that should be notified is. 

No incident will go off perfectly. After all, the people responding are humans, and humans make mistakes, but that is where preparation and planning come in.

It’s a team effort, and getting to know your teammates beforehand by working through these things will also help build trust amongst each other. 

If you’d like help with public information for disasters and emergencies planning, reach out to me to set up a free one-hour consultation. I’d also love to hear about other issues you’ve had or solutions you’ve come up with!

Published by Jeni Garcin

I'm a communications professional living in Montana with my two dachshunds. I'm an avid outdoorswoman and am on a fantastic journey of growth, healing and adventure.

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