A neighborhood burned to the ground by the Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., on Nov. 20, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Daniel Torok)

COLUMN: Be Ready to Communicate Like It’s 1950 When Disaster Strikes

HSToday is proud to present a multi-part series from Emmy award winning director Christopher Allan Smith, a survivor of the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and documentary filmmaker. Following the fire, Smith took his talents and devoted them to helping others learn from the tragedy on the Paradise Ridge, and the impact of disaster on families, communities and the first responders and disaster planners whose responsibility it is to take these lessons into the future. This series, Lessons Learned from the Camp Fire, describes how preparedness plays out in reality: from running for your life away from the danger to emergency finances to the aftermath, told only like a survivor could share. HSToday presents this series to bring a voice to the victims of disaster and add some personal texture and experience to the impact of disasters, terrorism, and other tragic acts of violence.

 

Read Part One of this installment

LESSON 3: Mind the Information Gap

Here’s something which may help: The Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook.

They’re periodically updated rules of thumb for gathering and evaluating information created by WNYC’s radio show On the Media, a show about the ethics, events and best practices of journalism.

Frankly, they’re an acknowledgement of the issues and drawbacks of gathering information in an imperfect world, i.e. an admission of error and caution that I think would make modern journalism more rather than less trustworthy.

After all, we accept modern cars are the safest by far of any generation of cars ever made, but we do acknowledge the wisdom of seatbelts. Being mindful of journalism’s imperfections can help us navigate the blizzard of information we now consume.

Among the guidelines:

  1. In the immediate aftermath of a breaking story, news outlets will get things wrong.
  2. Check multiple sources
  3. Look for sources of information closest to the incident at hand
  4. Be wary of anonymous or unnamed sources
  5. Be careful what you share online.

LESSON 4: Take Care Before You Share or DON’T STIR UP SH*T

If there was one refrain I heard from friends, family, public officials, first responders and business contacts in the wake of the Camp Fire it was this: Social media is a problem.

This is different from the partisan, polarized nature of online discourse we’re so familiar with when it comes to politics, but some of those misdirected passions play into the information environment during a disaster.

The amount of bad information spread online, wild rumors, fearful developments can become so overwhelming that officials spend as much time combating bad information as they do disseminating confirmed information.

We have learned over the past five years that depending on the story, depending on the moment, depending on the fear, some social media posts can have as much impact on our information environment as a primetime story on CNN, FoxNews or the front page of New York Times’ website. That’s just you and me people. WE have the power to fill the public’s awareness.

So what do we do? As my friends on the Paradise Ridge have a saying: “Don’t stir up sh*t.”

When you’re tired, when you’re excited about the debate roaring past on your smartphone screen, when you’re feeling like stirring the pot, just don’t. Share what you can show is true. Hold back from infusing our community conversation with rumors, irresponsible speculation, conspiracy theories… bad information. So TAKE CARE BEFORE YOU SHARE.

LESSON 5: Be Ready to Communicate Like It’s 1950

Ten years before the Camp Fire consumed Paradise, there were another series of fires on and around the Paradise Ridge. They came so close to burning the town they made clear to local officials and we citizens we needed to get very serious and very thorough in our fire preparation. It was heartening to see our efforts recognized by the NIST report.

One of the of the efforts that was implemented was a system called Code Red, which was a reverse calling system that would allow the town to call local phones in the midst of a disaster and communicate evacuation status and information. It was useful and I know it helped my escape from the calls I got that morning.

But I was unusually lucky. Because one of the first things the fire destroyed in town were key cell phone towers and relay stations. This included a line that ran through the county to our county government Emergency Operations Center. As such, not only did the system not work as hoped, but in the early hours of the disaster some of those charged with responding and managing were hampered by a lack of communication.

Essentially, the more advanced and sophisticated a communication system is, the more fragile it is. So prepare for your modern communication systems to go dark.

As Butte County Emergency Manager Cindi Dunsmoor told me, “It’s not just one method of notifying people that’s going [to be used]. We have to have a lot of tools in our toolbelt. Whether it’s door to door [contacts], whether it’s sirens, if it’s the phone calls, the emergency mass notification system, if its loudspeaker, whether its aircraft going through with a loudspeaker – you know we need more than just one notification system, which I believe we do now, and we’re looking to find more.”

She told me that in 2019, and since then they have implemented several older systems including tapping the HAM radio community to set up stopgap information delivery systems.

For you, that means planning meet-up locations if you and your loved ones or employees are separated. You cannot rely on a text. You cannot rely on Facetime. You cannot rely even on a landline phone call.

A Hazard Advisory notice was posted on sites affected by the Camp Fire warning residence and commercial property owners of unsafe conditions in the area throughout Butte County. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Amanda H. Johnson)

LESSON 6: Lessons for Leadership

This one goes out to the leaders, especially in this age of performative leading.

I admit I may be too truncated in my view, but disasters hold a special danger for modern leaders. The pressure to project an image, project confidence and command, while being humble, authentic and ALSO connected and sensitive to constituencies of all kinds on and offline… it can be smothering. The expectation to keep all these conflicting forces aligned can naturally lead to an impenetrable defensiveness, laboring over the language, tone and content of every public message.

But these impulses are almost perfectly antithetical to meaningful communication in a catastrophe. The tolerance for BS and spinning is NEVER lower with your constituents, your employees or your community than when we are all raw and hurting in a disaster.

The fact is, disasters humble us all. We are at the mercy of Mother Nature. The tension between reacting before having perfect knowledge goes double for leaders and there’s no clever way around it. The fury of tone deaf or thoughtless expression can hit and kill like a lightning bolt, but the reward for real, heartfelt communication is something that can last for years after the ashes are cleared.

One of the things that’s stood out to me as I’ve read accounts of other eras and their catastrophes and compared them to many of the public messaging in our current global pandemic is 1) how cheerleading our leaders seem to think they need to be and 2) how that relentless cheeriness as things are difficult acts like acid on their standing.

Looking back at dozens of disasters, from World War II to 9/11 to the Camp Fire, it’s become clear to me that the best way to communicate is too often shunned by leaders.

It’s to admit our human frailty. Admit fear. Admit our information is imperfect. Talk to people where they are, on their level. Don’t sugarcoat.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill talked to the British people about blood, toil and sweat when talking about resisting the Nazis. President FDR told Americans it would be years of struggles, defeat and setbacks before the fruits of their work and fighting could be tasted. While seen in a different light now for sure, when asked about the casualties on September 11, 2001, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the number would be “more than any of us can bear.” No fluff or comfort. And for a time millions saw him as America’s Mayor.

So what’s a leader to do? Here are some suggestions:

Acknowledge the situation: It’s bad, people are torn apart and pretending they’re not will only distance yourself from them. Acknowledging the tragedy will make your audience feel heard and seen.

Prepare your friends and neighbors for chaos: As with anything new, dealing with an unfolding and unfamiliar disaster is the most difficult thing you may do. Admit and acknowledge things will be hairy. Mistakes will be made. But you will be going through it with them and doing your best to minimize the pain. But don’t pretend like the pain and struggle and missteps won’t be there.

Admit what you don’t know: If there’s one thread through all these tragedies it is that knowing the full truth takes time, sometimes even years. So admitting your ignorance as we all grope our way through draws you closer to those you lead. Know what you can, convey what you know, and when you reach the limits of that knowledge admit it.

It’s OK to admit you don’t know. In fact, it will help a scared audience trust you more.

The best person I’ve seen in the modern era actually works here in Butte County, and I wonder if he’s so versed in this because he’s had so much awful practice. It’s Sheriff Kory Honea, who has helped the county live through the Oroville Dam disaster and more wildfires than can be itemized here. I’ll let him close this entry:

“I think people have to understand if there is a demand for information very quickly, what comes with that is the potential that the information is not going be completely accurate. We’re going be subject to change going forward. I always begin my briefings with ‘the information that I’m going provide you today is the best information I have and please understand that as we gain new information, this is all subject to revision, or change.’ And I was always trying to set that expectation to let people know.”

It’s amazing how simple and true that advice is, and how few leaders heed it.

Read Part 1 (here and here) and Part 2 of Christopher Allan Smith’s series about preparing and responding to the world around you when it’s consumed by calamity

COLUMN: How to Navigate Disaster Amid a Firestorm of Bad Information

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An Emmy-Award Winning documentarian, Christopher Allan Smith lived in Paradise, California, with his family until the Camp Fire consumed his home in November 2018. Since then, he has been conducting interviews and research into the history of the fire as well as the lessons taken by first responders, civilians, government officials and private disaster planners, with an eye toward producing multiple projects based on those lessons. He also acted as a Field Producer for Ron Howard’s REBUILDING PARADISE as well as the writer/director of the PBS broadcast documentary A HIGH AND AWFUL PRICE: LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE CAMP FIRE. He is the owner and founder of RocketSpots.tv, a video production company that produces a wide range of documentary, promotional and online projects.

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