When a City Is Burning - Or Not

In early 2015, the entire city of Baltimore was overrun with rioters and the city was set ablaze. At least that is what the world saw on news reports. As devastating as the civil unrest was to a relatively small portion of the city, the situation was exacerbated by reports of “citywide” chaos and destruction.

When a local emergency manager is handling a disaster, support and resources can come pouring in from across the country from other local governments, states, and federal agencies, as well as from private, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations. Although massive in scale, such an influx of resources is not overwhelming; the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and other tried-and-tested plans and procedures make it relatively easy to manage massive amounts of resources during an emergency. The Incident Command System has several principals and tools that ensure that no one person is overwhelmed with responsibilities or by communication challenges.  

Shaking hands and building relationships prior to an incident is hugely important, but it is not mandatory. Emergency plans at all levels have set the roles and responsibilities of each partner coming in to assist – so the position filled is more important than the person filling it. For example, if a local emergency manager has not previously had the opportunity to meet the federal coordinating officer assigned to an incident in his or her jurisdiction, no big deal. His or her capabilities and what he or she will be doing to respond to the disaster are already delineated in emergency plans, and any lack of a pre-existing relationship does not affect the officer’s ability to help.

The Media Gap However, there seems to be gap in how the media – one of the biggest partners – responds to emergencies and how it integrates with the incident management systems that are in place. When disaster strikes, the media presence multiplies dramatically, with dozens or even hundreds of media outlets arriving to cover the incident. This rapid expansion of the media presence presents a massive challenge for public information officers who begin to receive an endless stream of phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and social media posts from news outlets. Those who have managed an incident of national significance would recall their cell phone batteries draining rapidly while questions and interview requests pour in. Many times requests come from very unexpected sources – a public information officer may find themselves asking, “How did Anderson Cooper get my personal cell number?”

When civil unrest and rioting broke out in Baltimore, Maryland, following the death of Freddie Gray, the media presence was staggering. The Joint Information Center and public information officers struggled to keep up with requests, monitor media activity, and release timely information to the public. In many ways, the media did an excellent job of covering the incidents but, as in many cases, the media coverage resulted in a challenging “Catch 22”:  The image on the screen defines the disaster, but the cameras always show the most heavily impacted location – so the worst-case scenario becomes the leading image. Certainly, some damage was widespread throughout Baltimore, but the heavy damage was concentrated in one location in one neighborhood in West Baltimore, and that single location was the main image on television screens across the world.

The unintended effect of this was the promulgation of a public belief that the entire city was burning. Not only was the major damage concentrated in one area, but city agencies worked tirelessly throughout the night to assess damage, collect debris, and unblock roads. Because of their efforts, the city was open for business the next morning. However, because of the images portrayed on television, dozens of volunteers, community members, and even celebrities and professional athletes spontaneously showed up the next morning with shovels and brooms ready to help clean and remove the debris that, unbeknownst to them, was long gone.

Of course, the Joint Information Center needs to do a better job of leveraging the media to get messages out and paint a more accurate picture of what is happening. However, the way the media expands does not make it easy for the response system to coordinate with reporters. None of the Incident Command System tools – such as a liaison officer or span-of-control – are utilized to keep the numerous media partners manageable. Because of the nature of the work, media professionals do not spend a long time in one position, and their focus has to be on producing content; not on the things that emergency managers live and breathe – training, planning, and incorporating lessons learned into future responses. This makes it difficult for emergency managers and public information officers to develop lasting relationships and train media professionals as they do with other partners. Attempting to build those relationships ahead of time is even more important without a system like NIMS to seamlessly integrate the media response to disaster.

The Need for a Media Response Framework A possible solution might include the media incorporating a “National Media Response Framework” or a system like NIMS. At a minimum, the news community should evaluate how it responds to major incidents and determine if there are ways to improve how it deploys and interacts with the impacted responders. An improved system that gets out better information quickly should be in everyone’s best interest.

Emergency managers clearly need to do what they can to engage with media partners as much as possible, and make sure to maximize the limited time they may spend together in the preparedness phase. Without a formal response system, relationship building becomes much more important. If it is not possible to coordinate with the media ahead of time, emergency managers must do more to prepare for the media impact, and ensure that the Joint Information Center is prepared to deal with news reports ramping up. If not already in place, public information officers should consider mutual aid agreements with others who are not impacted and can come to help. The modern Joint Information Center needs more people and more technological solutions to deal with the numerous and diverse demands placed on it.  The impact of social media as an information tool and intelligence source is only beginning to be understood, and Joint Information Center planners must stay ahead of the curve as new technologies and capabilities are developed.

As the emergency management profession continues to work toward mastery of disaster response, emergency managers always have the opportunity to evaluate themselves and their partners in order to improve the preparedness and response systems. Coordination with the media is just one piece of many, but it is absolutely crucial to success and worth the time and effort to enhance systems and help the communities served. The news media wants to get the story right, and emergency managers must take every opportunity to put them in a position to be successful.

Connor Scott

Connor Scott is the acting vice president and chief of staff for security at Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. He oversees security operations for Johns Hopkins Medicine hospitals and facilities in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Florida, as well as university campus safety and security worldwide. He was Baltimore’s assistant deputy mayor for operations and deputy director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management. He most recently served Baltimore City as their deputy director of operations in the Department of Transportation. He is an emergency medical technician (EMT) and firefighter.



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