Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Communicating In Crisis

To say that the fire department(s) have done a poor job of communicating with the public during the course of this fire would be an understatement of considerable proportions. My family from other parts of the country is asking some questions that I cannot answer.

Where precisely within San Diego area are the fires located?
What’s the status of the fires inside the San Diego City limits?

To both questions this morning I have to respond that I don’t really know. There have been statements from fire officials, all of whom have stood at the podium looking like robots and blathered about “resources” and “behaviors” but have told us almost nothing in terms of actual progress, either of the fires or of the efforts in containing them. They have not one time displayed a map, with or without any markings on it.

The San Diego City fire chief told us this morning that quite a few fire crews had been “returned to their home stations,” which sounds like they have been stood down. This seems a bit odd when fires are being described as (at best) 10% contained, but no explanation was offered.

It may be that the fire departments are not telling us what the fires are doing because they simply don’t know what the fires are doing. That is a rather frightening thought, but there is nothing in the behavior of the officials speaking to the public that would contradict such an impression.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has a map with burn areas outlined on it, but they are clearly only approximate since the boundaries are all straight lines, and they have not changed since early Tuesday morning. They also do not indicate what parts of the fire areas are active so their usefulness is limited at best, but they are all we have. TV stations are all using that same map.

One television station showed an infrared satellite image recently, and all of the area within the city was light in color, which would indicate that the actively burning area no longer includes the inner city area. Statements by city officials other than fire departments imply that such is the case, so I’ll go with that and assume that the city itself is “out of the woods” now.

Communication from city and county officials other than fire departments has been excellent for the first few days. As I posted earlier, they did not use the event for political posturing (with a very few exceptions), and announcements of what to do and how to do it were frequent and clearly made. As soon as our governor showed up, however, things went downhill fast; all the local politicians signed on and the political posturing went full bore. Listening to the press conferences now is a very tedious process now, separating the “wheat from the chaff” of political blather.

Our City Attorney has gone off the deep end, issuing a statement that the entire city should be evacuated after the fires are out. Sometimes one of the “fruits and nuts” that I referenced in an earlier post seems to get elected to public office. I think this one has a serious mental problem.

The television stations are now showing clips that were taken when the fires were raging as background while doing interviews. Sometimes they have a small label in an upper corner that reads “earlier,” but sometimes they do not. I wish they would not do that, as when one sees it (even with the label) one has to speculate as to whether a new fire has broken out or not. I guess they feel the need to be showing some sort of sensational visual.

They were just reporting factual information earlier, now they’ve “reverted to type.” So I guess, in a way, that’s a good thing, in that we’re getting back to the way things were, where the media needs to provide sensation rather than mere news.

The real problem has been information and leadership from fire officials.

During a major wildfire near my home town, Tucson AZ, a few years ago I was able to follow the course of events from here because the fire department there provided a map which showed the boundaries of the fire area and indicated the active areas and where the department was putting its efforts. As I recall, that map was updated every six hours and sometimes more frequently.

I wish that San Diego’s fire department had that level of expertise and concern for providing information to its public. Under the leadership of Chief Bowman it did; he reassured and informed us with great effect during the Cedar Fire in 2003. It seems the choice of his replacement was poorly made.

No comments:

Post a Comment