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Sunday, December 4, 2022

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

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.


This series is about getting you through catastrophe.

Part 1 (here and here) and Part 2 were about preparing and responding to the world around you when it’s consumed by calamity. As our world here was.

I’m known to you at Quality Digest as the director and main hand behind the video content here. Like some Quality Digest employees, my life was altered with shocking speed in November 2018 when the Camp Fire destroyed most of the communities on the Paradise Ridge in Butte County, California.

And like any catastrophe that includes destruction, the deaths of innocents, factors of human folly and shreds of knowledge bought at too high a price, there are echoes to be found in the U.S. Civil War.

One morning in 1862, two Union soldiers, Sergeant John Bloss and Corporal Barton W. Mitchell, noticed three cigars wrapped with paper. You see, they were resting in a field where a few days earlier Confederate troops had camped. Unwrapping the paper, they found “Special Order No. 191, Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia.”

Up the chain of command it went. One of the links along the way was Union Adjutant General Samuel Pittman, who recognized the handwriting as that of Robert Chilton, someone he had known before the war. Chilton now was serving as an Adjutant General to Robert E. Lee.

The special order laid out Lee’s plans and revealed carefully hidden weaknesses. It was a key to his defeat barely a year after the war began.

Unfortunately for Pittman, the Union Army and the human forces for good everywhere, the information ended up with Union General George B. McClellan, famous for indecision and never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. At first jolted by enthusiasm, McClellan soon demurred and vacillated. Lee’s forces were split five ways and ripe for destruction.

Lee escaped. The war raged for another 31 bloody months, killing 620,000 Americans including the President.

What You Know and When You Know It

In an unfolding crisis, be it in your business, the leadership of your organization, or the movement of your family to safety in a disaster, information is only as useful as what you do with it. It is not enough to have the best intelligence if you cannot execute in time.

That is the core of this part in our Lessons Learned series. As important as good planning is in the face of risk, as important as nimble reactions are as danger looms, getting and USING information is essential to managing a good outcome.

Obvious as that sounds, leaders at all levels fail often enough that highlighting these lessons seems valuable. Following the fire, and the rise of disinformation in recent years of all stripes, I found some of the tools I picked up as a former journalist would be more valuable for my fellow citizens to know than ever before.

LESSON 1: Not All Information Is Equal

Even in the first hours of the Camp Fire, as flames marched down the Paradise Ridge, I found myself shocked by something my fellow citizens were doing. I first noticed it at a diner in Chico where my sons and I had gone, in shock I now know, to get breakfast and assess.

While I waited for pancakes to come I never ended up eating, I went on Facebook to see what people were posting. There were already a spray of pictures going up of various buildings, neighborhoods and landmarks on fire along with comments, questions and desperate pleas for information. I tried to use by best journalism training and piece together only what I could verify.

How could I do that? While reports from people can be meaningful, the only thing I could verify without being there were photos of places I knew. Maybe by plotting on Google Maps the locations of known fires I could get some idea on the safety or peril of my home and community.

Half an hour later I knew two things: 1). The map looked like a spray of red stars across the night’s sky. There was fire everywhere. 2). The rumors, recriminations and misunderstandings were already flying thick and fast. I found over and over one person speculating in one thread and the person who they responded to asserting that speculation as fact in another thread. The Town Hall, the movie theater, Ace Hardware and the High School were all burning. Safeway, the church where I went to vote every election and the Paradise Elementary school were safe.

In fact, Town Hall and the High School were perfectly safe. Safeway, Paradise Elementary and my voting place were cinders. The inability for informed and well-meaning people to find indistinguishable the difference between rumors and theory and speculation and facts had never seemed more glaring.

But soon after I realized, why would I expect something different. The world is complex and getting more so, and most people aren’t trained in ferreting out the subtle nuances of information as journalists are (or should be).

Information comes to us in so many forms, but they all boil down to three categories, each with their own value and dangers: 1). Rumors and Gossip, 2). Reports and 3). Verified Facts.

COLUMN: How to Navigate Disaster Amid a Firestorm of Bad Information Homeland Security Today
U.S. Army Sgt. Rodrigo Estrada of the California Army National Guard’s 649th Engineer Company, 579th Engineer Battalion, 49th Military Police Brigade, from Chico, California, leads a team conducting search and debris clearing operations, Nov. 17, 2018, in Paradise, California. The engineers worked in support of state agencies following the deadly Camp Fire. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

RUMORS & GOSSIP: These are informal kinds of information, usually coming to us through conversation, texts or quick calls with friends and acquaintances. They CAN be useful and they’re fast. But they’re just as likely to be misinformed or distorted, often arriving with us through a chain of people. As we all learned playing Telephone as kids, few or no people in that chain might have first hand experience with what they’re describing. The personal biases, understandings and memory of everyone along that chain could mean by the time this kind of information reaches you, you’re likely to be hearing a story with little or no true information at all.

REPORTS: These are something you might get from the news media, an on location official or a first responder. They may turn out to be inaccurate or incomplete, but the person relaying the information should have tried to verify it first. An attempt to verify here is the key factor. In fact, this is the reason some journalists are called reporters. Their job is to dispassionately distill the important facts from reliable, named sources. While we have all been frustrated by our news environment over the last few years, I think it’s fair to say at the core of our frustration is the failure of organizations to honor this role of verifying information.

Depending on the news organization, they still may focus on the most interesting facts to keep your attention, but the more reputable news agencies will try to give you the most relevant facts in times of disaster.

The advantage of reports is they are usually better information than rumors and gossip, but the disadvantage is they take longer to assemble.

VERIFIED FACTS: Just what they sound like: Known realities verified, proven and thoroughly established by recording instruments, those who experienced or witnessed them firsthand and experts. The best we have in human knowledge. Unfortunately, verified facts are the slowest to come and in a disaster situation may not come until days, weeks, months or sometimes years later.

So remember this: In an emergency, you will probably have to operate without verified facts. And let’s be clear, you WILL have to operate.

LESSON 2: Bad Information is Faster than Good Information. Deal With It and GO

While it may be implied above, this one deserves a call out. Good information is verified. Verification takes time. As such, there will ALWAYS be an unclosable gap between good information and bad. Bad information spreads as fast as people can talk, text, or misunderstand, as Twitter reconfirms on a minute by minute basis.

But here’s the awful, frustrating, unavoidable truth: You will have to act without getting all the information you feel you need. We live in a time when it is possible to literally review the attributes of every hotel in Rome before booking a trip. We can read every review of a dishwasher on Amazon before we buy. We can truly weigh the value and relative traits of almost everything. With enough time, we can wring out literally the best choice for a given action.

But time as noted industrialist Howard Stark once put it, “No amount of money ever bought a second of time.”

When chaos and danger are unfolding around you, your chief isn’t finding the BEST way out, the most clever solution, the most efficient route. It is to pass the most minimal hurtle: getting out alive. Your chances of doing that go up dramatically if you act faster.

To do that, you’ll have to reconcile your want for more information with the urgency to act.  You’ll have to weigh a spray of information from family, neighbors and friends, texts, social media, governmental announcements and news reports. But then you will have to GO.

If you can come to peace with that before the adrenaline begins to pump, you will be better off.

Stay tuned for part two of this installment next week

COLUMN: Camp Fire Lessons – Keep Calm and Run for Your Life

Christopher Allan Smith
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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