Parkland HS Shooting One-Year Later: Lessons for Public Information Officers

A year ago, the nation watched in horror as news from Parkland, Florida spread. Among the many aspects of that tragedy that warrant change, public information officers can learn much from that incident. Recently, I spent some time with students who survived the mass shooting that occurred a year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While they praised the skill and bravery of the police who responded, they told me about things that could have been done better.

Listen to Parkland student Adam Alhanti on what wasn’t learned in advance that could make a difference in future school shootings. Alhanti was interviewed by Doug Levy.

My school is being shot up and I am locked inside. I’m f***ing scared right now. 
— Aidan Minoff (@TheCaptainAidan) February 14, 2018 3:01 PM

Parkland HS students used Twitter and other messaging platforms while hiding. (Tweet edited to alter the profanity.)

No matter how good any emergency response may be, there are always things to learn. In fact, there are lessons from Parkland that apply to all kinds of emergencies, not just active shooter attacks.

Two students who were at Parkland during the shooting, Adam Alhanti and John Barnitt, both offered terrific insights on how law enforcement and other emergency responders can do more to help quell fears, maintain calm, and reduce anxiety in a crisis–and how to improve planning. 

Top of the list: John and Adam both said that there must be better planning for getting information out – in real-time – to people in the middle of a major incident. Relying on social media for updates often results in inaccurate or insufficient details. Despite drills, students were scared, unsure of where to go or what to do, and were unsure how to determine friend from foe.

When I wrote The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts, my goal was to help anyone responsible for emergency management identify the communications actions that are important in any emergency. Instead of binders full of scenarios, document the tactics, tools and intelligence that enable incident commanders and public information officers to make swift decisions, craft accurate messages, and get urgent information out – fast.

AVOID AREA OF DOUGLAS HS for ACTIVE POLICE SCENE. Do not call 911 unless an emergency. Nothing further.
— Coral Springs Police (@CoralSpringsPD) February 14, 2018 2:34 PM

Police from the adjacent jurisdiction were on the scene and communicating faster than the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

#BSO is working a developing incident regarding a report of active shooter located at 5901 Pine Island Rd, Parkland. Here’s what we know so far: deputies are responding to reports of a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High. There are reports of victims. PIO will be on scene 3:15pm.
— Broward Sheriff (@browardsheriff) February 14, 2018 2:53 PM

This was the Broward Sheriff’s office first tweet about the Parkland situation.

Here are some of the lessons that the Parkland students told me that emergency responders should factor into their communications and emergency response plans:

  • THINKING UNDER DURESS: The students worried about people who were not hiding or staying still during the attack. Perhaps we can build into our plans some kind of fast reminders about key steps for safety, such as a reminder to “stay quiet, keep away from windows, and don’t walk around.” No matter how many drills are ever done, it’s hard for people to do exactly what they are “supposed” to do under duress.
  • NOT EVERYONE HEARS YOU: One of the students told me he was afraid that someone was going to be shot by police because they did not understand the command to not have anything in their hands when exiting. When the SWAT team arrived to rescue students and teachers who were hiding, their instructions did not account for students with disabilities. 
  • DESIGNATE A CLEAR AUTHORITY: The students told me that during the initial response, they were confused by tweets from different police departments. There was no single authority that the students relied on as they sweated out those horrifying minutes hiding from the gunman. The main sources of information were tweets from media outlets.
  • PLAN AHEAD FOR OBVIOUS SCENARIOS: The Parkland high school’s campus is large and open. The students said that there should have been better pre-planning for evacuating each part of the campus in an emergency. This kind of pre-planning has made a difference in other emergencies, such as a shopping mall shooting in Texas last winter. 

Police are working an active shooter scene, and ask that if you are in touch with your student you ask that they remain calm and barricaded until police come to their room, this is for everyone’s safety. Do NOT call our 911 or non-emergency number unless it is an emergency.
— Coral Springs Police (@CoralSpringsPD) February 14, 2018 3:29 PM

Important instructions for worried family and friends — including what to relay to anyone inside they were in contact with.

This kind of post-event analysis is one of the most important practices for any emergency agency, and its widespread adoption is one reason why emergency plans in many communities have already been updated based on learnings from last year’s wildfires and the most recent mass casualty incidents, including the mass murders at Parkland and Las Vegas.

What have you changed recently? Should others follow your lead? Let me know, and I’ll compile some of the key learnings.

Here’s to being ready to save lives next time and every time.

When danger looms, hesitation costs lives

One of the sad lessons from the 2017 firestorm that swept away neighborhoods in Sonoma County and killed dozens was that emergency officials must understand their alert systems so that they use them properly when lives are on the line. Now, we ask these questions again in the aftermath of the massive destruction that destroyed Paradise, Calif. Below are some steps each agency can take now to improve emergency communications plans.

Emergency alerts as the Camp Fire raged

Officials in Butte County used their opt-in system instead of triggering a Wireless Emergency Alert to virtually every cell phone in the vicinity. The fire grew with astounding speed — it grew to 10,000 acres within its first 90 minutes and rapidly overtook the town of Paradise, Calif.

Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea defended his agency’s reactions. While I will defer to others to evaluate whether the sheriff’s department did everything possible, all of us have this opportunity to review our plans so that similar tragedies may be avoided.

“There were notifications sent out, but … this fire was moving so rapidly we couldn’t keep ahead of it,” Honea said.

Review and revise your emergency alert plans 

Situations like a fast-moving wildfire are always going to be chaotic and confusing. Emergency officials must do everything possible to stay calm and focused, even when facts are unclear.  Planning must take into account the inherent confusion — and the risk of mistakes.

In Sonoma, officials did not use the WEA system because they thought it would alert too many people outside of the risk area and cause dangerous panic. In Butte, we are hearing that officials repeated what Sonoma did – and which did not work. The opt-in system had about 23,000 people signed up, about 10 percent of the county population. A WEA might have reached tens of thousands more.

Even more important is the question of timing. Might a short alert at the initial report of a fire helped? Something like:

“Firefighters responding to reported wildland fire outside of Paradise. Critically high fire danger throughout the area. Prepare now in case evacuation becomes necessary.”

Such a message would need to be supplemented with links to resources such as maps of evacuation routes or guidance on what to pack and bring — all of which likely were disseminated long before fire season. But we know that many people ignore everything about emergency planning until it is sometimes too late.

Things to do now to improve emergency communications

My advice for all agencies in wildfire risk areas is to do these things now:

Inventory all of your alert methods.

  • Do you have a plan for door-to-door notifications? Pre-assign sectors and routes if you can.
  • What other systems are in place?
  • Who has the authority to use each system?
  • Who knows how to use each system? Every agency should have at least three people trained and prepared to operate each or all systems.
  • Review your response area and its population.
    • What special populations exist?
    • Are there any groups that may need earlier notice to evacuate?
    • What language or other communications obstacles exist?
    • What are the evacuation routes?
      • If egress is limited, how can you sequence evacuation orders to reduce congestion?
      • What information do people need in order to get out safely?
  • Plan ahead.
    • Residents of risk areas must know how to evacuate long before emergencies occur.
    • Practice evacuations in high-risk areas, especially where routes are limited.
    • Communicate with people before fire season begins and frequently during the season. Make sure everyone knows how to get emergency information.
  • Practice. Practice. Practice. 
    • The only thing that comes close to experience in an emergency is experience in a well crafted practice session.
    • Put primary and secondary decision-makers into the “hot seat” to make difficult decisions about alerts in a training session.
    • Include other agencies likely to be involved in real emergencies.
    • Schedule and perform short drills frequently — at least once a quarter. Full-scale drills should be done annually.

From what I have seen, the town of Paradise had done many of these things, but the scale and speed of the Camp Fire overtook their plans. Even so, there is no doubt there could have been more done in advance of the flames. While nobody could forecast this fire specifically, the forecast high winds and dry conditions made the risk higher than ever.

Last year when similar conditions occurred in Southern California, fire departments in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties made extra efforts to communicate in advance about evacuation procedures, alert systems and other emergency planning that individuals could do to stay safe. That should be the standard for all emergency agencies.

Related articles: Did CA county fail on Camp Fire alerts?

San Francisco Chronicle: Camp Fire: Officials did not send Amber Alert-style warning as blaze hit Paradise

CNN: Many Camp Fire victims didn’t get emergency alerts. Those who did got them too late.

Interested in learning more about how a Communications Golden Hour® workshop can help you and your team improve your emergency communications? Find out more on my workshops page or contact me directly.

“Presidential Alert” test: what emergency communicators need to know about effective messaging

The "presidential alert" system is the USA's highest emergency alert system.
Example of how a presidential alert would appear on mobile phones nationwide. A test is set for October 3, 2018. (FEMA photo.)

The upcoming nationwide test (now rescheduled for Oct. 3) of the nation’s highest level of emergency alert, the federal “Presidential alert” system, raises important questions about how government agencies communicate urgent safety information to the public when lives are on the line.

Being the source of credible emergency information is one of the most important responsibilities of any elected official, and especially for those who head executive positions such as mayor, town manager, governor or president. Knowing what makes an emergency message effective should be mandatory learning for all elected officials.

We have many examples from recent emergencies how these factors play out. Based on real life examples, there are three key factors that determine whether emergency messages are effective:

1. The messages must actually reach the intended audience.

Facing a fast-moving firestorm last year, Sonoma County, Calif., officials relied in part on automated calls to landline telephones, unaware that most phones were inoperative because winds or fire knocked down utility lines. A more common error is sending only English-language messages to neighborhoods with many non-English speaking residents. Emergency plans must account for translation and multi-lingual communication (not Google Translate!,) as well as the complexities of communicating with concentrations of elderly or those with mobility limitations, blindness, hearing impairments or other special circumstances. There are few emergencies in which a single mode of communication is sufficient to reach everyone in danger. This is also why the only method that consistently has better than 50 percent success is door-to-door, person-to-person contact by emergency personnel.

2. People who receive the message must believe that it is real.

The credibility of a message’s sender is paramount. Early efforts at creating text messaging alert systems failed when organizations conducted too many tests or used the alert system to convey non-urgent information. These systems got messages out, but people tuned them out. If every message makes your cell phone light up, people tend to either shut off or ignore messages. An emergency alert system should be used only for true emergencies. At least one major sheriff’s department has used their Nixle text messaging system to announce non-emergency public events — hardly an emergency. That kind of message makes people more likely to ignore future alerts. (Besides, there are ways to send these “community messages” via Nixle without using the emergency alert function.)

3. Messages must include clear instructions.

Informing people that there is an emergency is only the first step. People need to know what to do. Instead of saying “take shelter,” say “stay in your home with doors and windows closed and locked.” Instead of saying “avoid the area,” say “stay away.” Instead of “water may contain toxins” say “do not drink the water.” Use clear, direct language so that people can act swiftly on the directions provided. If there is nothing for people to do, at least let them know how to get updates or when the next update will be sent.

Hawaii false missile alert
Hawaii’s emergency management agency sent this false alert on January 13, 2018. A correction went out 38 minutes later.

In January, when the Hawaii emergency management office mistakenly transmitted a missile attack alert, people who paid attention to prior communications about emergency alerts disregarded the message because they knew that a real message would have been accompanied by other messages with additional details. However, thousands of others were terrified for the 38 minutes between the errant alert and the follow-up message retracting it. Some of the panic was because the alert provided no actionable instructions. People had no idea where they were supposed to take shelter.

As we approach the test of the presidential alert system, we must consider whether such an alert could ever be effective. In a real emergency, the president is the only one with authority to activate this system. However, activation means directing designated officials to issue one or more emergency messages via both traditional radio and television channels and the nationwide cellular networks. It does not necessarily mean that the president personally crafts or transmits the message.

The emergency broadcast system, which forms an important part of the current alert structure, was created during the Cold War fear of a Russian nuclear attack. It was highly effective in large part because there was a concentration of media. Instead of hundreds of different television channels, most communities had five or six channels, and a majority of people watched one of the three major network evening newscasts. While the laws now require cable TV systems to join broadcasters and transmit a national level emergency alert, the messages would only reach people watching live TV programming. Streaming via the Internet or watching shows on your your DVR won’t be interrupted, and fewer people watch live TV every year.

This is why the current system adds Wireless Emergency Alerts — the kind that trigger cell phone alarms for an Amber Alert or impending major weather emergency. Based on geography instead of individual cell phone numbers, the system is highly effective at delivering emergency messages to individual cell phones.

Even though the systems have been used with great restraint, there is major risk that people will shut off emergency alerts if one or more ill-advised messages go out. If a local government official starts off a news conference in an emergency touting how well he is doing as the emergency manager, there’s little chance the public will listen to or care about anything that comes later — even if it has life-safety implications. If a public information officer from one agency puts out a message that turns out to be completely wrong, that PIO will have trouble getting other emergency messages out. Credibility and trust are keys to effectiveness.

That brings us back to the current situation. While elected officials are political by definition, disaster or other emergency response must always be separated from politics. Natural disasters do not take paths based on the political persuasions of people along the way. Neither does this impact who gets rescued (at least, it certainly should not.)

One reason that many elected officials defer to their law enforcement, fire or public health leaders to make emergency announcements is to avoid any perception of politics or other bias. However, those people are still acting on authority granted by the elected leader.

Should there be a real national emergency, the president must personally authorize use of the presidential alert system, but others must be involved, both for practical reasons and because the law includes a chain of authorities for the system’s use. Effectively communicating what to do when a dire threat looms may best be delegated to a military, national security, public health or public safety official with the right expertise and credibility. If the goal is saving lives, knowing who people trust has to be considered before any emergency message goes out.

For more about crafting and disseminating emergency messages, check out Doug Levy’s book, The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts (Public Safety Press, 2018.)

Seven things to know about long-duration emergency communications

By Doug Levy and Tim Conrad

There are many things we can learn from past emergencies to help us when facing any long-duration emergency, especially for situations that last more than a few days. Here are some of our best tips:

1.       Don’t count on the media to stay with your story. Identify – or create your own – channels for communicating with people affected by the emergency or at risk.

2.       Decide on your main communications channel early and let the media and everyone else know. Community Facebook pages, agency or municipal Twitter streams, or low-power radio or TV stations are among options that have worked in other communities. These work best if people know which one you will use before an emergency starts.

3.       If the information command includes multiple agencies and communicators from different jurisdictions, make sure to consult a local expert before issuing any updates. Nothing hurts credibility more than getting a geographic reference wrong, giving incorrect directions, or mispronouncing a significant local name.

4.       Nobody performs at their best without a break. Even in an “all hands” emergency, hold back one or more people to come in as the relief shift. And think ahead about who is going to come in on day 5, day 6, week 3, etc.

5.       Let colleagues from other areas know that you may need their help as soon as you can foresee the need. Transportation during emergencies may be more challenging than usual so allow extra time.

6.       In addition to all the usual items in your PIO “go kit,” pack these extra essentials for a long-duration situation: eye shade, ear plugs, paper road map, printed copies of key media, interagency and community contacts.

7.       In situations with many casualties or major damage, include welfare checks for your own personnel. Even just an occasional, “are you doing OK?” can help prevent long-term PTSD or post-operational stress as well as keeping performance tops.

To learn more, get The Communications Golden Hour: The Essential Guide to Public Information When Every Minute Counts, available at or Or, order from your favorite bookseller or

Doug Levy is principal of Doug Levy Communications LLC in Sausalito, California.

Tim Conrad is principal of Butterfly Effect Communications of Grande Prairie, Alberta.

© 2018 Doug Levy Communications LLC. “Seven things to know about long-duration emergency communications” by Doug Levy & Tim Conrad is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at


Word choice matters – especially when communicating

Everyone who communicates for a living knows how important word choice is, but we often overlook how easy it is for words to be misunderstood. In crisis situations, seemingly straightforward words like “investigate” or “factual” or “secure” can convey different meanings to the public from what the speaker intends.

What words have you used that were misunderstood? Please share your stories in the survey form below or at this link: I will include some of them in my forthcoming book, The Communications Golden Hour, and in future blog posts. Thank you.

Hawaii false alarm shows importance of focused emergency planning

This was a message from a Hawaiian mother to her daughter in California after the false alert.
A mother in Hawaii sent this to her daughter in California after the false alert.

The errant missile warning that alarmed people in Hawaii on January 13 showed the importance of emergency planning that includes anticipating possible errors. Apart from other issues with the response, there can be no defending that it took more than 10 minutes after the mistaken wide-area alert for corrective messages to start going out. In fact, the full-scale “nevermind” message was sent more than 30 minutes after the false alarm. That half-hour was filled with preventable emotion, tension, and fear. Parents sent heart-wrenching messages to children, people rushed to get home, and stores closed in a hurry.

The concept of Communications Golden Hour™ that I detail in my forthcoming book focuses on the importance of having the right steps identified in advance of an emergency and thinking through in a meticulous way all the things that could happen — including mistakes. This is a crucial element of emergency planning.

If a real life-threatening emergency occurs, police or others responsible for emergency management must get a message out rapidly – within 3-5 minutes in most instances. However, they also have many other immediate priorities besides communications. Thus, turning communications over to a professional communicator – or someone else who is charged specifically with communications – within the initial minutes is every bit as important as dispatching fire engines, ambulances, SWAT teams or any other emergency responders.

This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.
This false alarm went out in Hawaii on January 13, 2018. It was corrected 38 minutes later.

A professional communicator needs to immediately confirm that the message already distributed is accurate. The next step is to craft a follow-up message that can get out within 20 minutes of the onset of the emergency. The first message alerts the public. The second provides instructions on what to do. It also can advise that the situation is under control or escalating. That did not happen in Hawaii, which added to the confusion.

State officials in Hawaii will need to make their own decisions about the wisdom of an alert system that can be triggered by a single individual. In many systems, a duty officer can send an urgent warning to trigger responses from emergency officials, but a wide-area alert like this one would require another command-level supervisor’s authority.

Residents of Honolulu also criticized the emergency management agency for providing an alert that was not actionable: few people had any idea where to go for shelter, and there was no guidance about where to find this information. With Internet and phone traffic rapidly overloaded in those frantic few minutes Saturday morning, a follow-up message with information on what to do would have helped a lot. In a real emergency, people need to know what to do, and you cannot presume they will remember information that was previously provided when they are under stress of the moment.

Especially in an area where so many people are visitors, emergency messages need to factor in the idea that not everyone receiving the message has the same knowledge that residents may have.

“I noticed that everybody was just stopped in their tracks, getting on the phone and calling people,” said Seth Buckley, a Honolulu lawyer who was out doing photography when the alert went out. “There was a lot of, ‘I received this, now what the heck do I do?'”

Chicago resident Matthew Griffo was there on vacation when the alert shook him out of bed.

“We had just been at Pearl Harbor, so it was pretty fresh in our minds how they thought it was a false alarm. We thought we would rather be on the side of caution,” so he and his family rushed to their hotel lobby. Once there, they realized there was no shelter nearby, said Griffo.

What questions do you have about the key elements of your communications emergency plan? I’ll answer questions left in the comments.

Protecting your business from polarizing politics

Many of us hoped that politics would fade as a top driver of consumer sentiment as soon as Election Day came and went. Now, preventing being dragged into a political firestorm needs to be as much a part of business emergency planning as fire safety and IT recovery, because there is no sign that public polarization is going to ebb anytime soon.

In the past week, a shoe company, a spice company and a coffee company were among the many businesses that were subjects of social media campaigns related to the election results.  Now is the time for others to take steps to prevent joining the list.

The most common ways companies get into political hot water are:

  • Deliberately, such as when an executive makes a political endorsement;
  • Accidentally, when customers perceive a company official or employee making a political statement;
  • Innocently, such as when members of the public mistakenly attribute a political act to a business or when an individual or group chooses to conduct a political act on a business property.

While the business aspects of each of these may differ, the communications strategies are similar. The most important ground rule is that every company needs to have a written policy about political activity. 

Prohibiting political activity at work generally fits within an employer’s rights, provided that the rule has a legitimate business justification, is fair and consistently enforced, and does not infringe on an employee’s rights outside of their job. In other words, you can prohibit employees from wearing political buttons while working, provided that you prohibit all campaign buttons. But you are in murky waters if you publish this rule after political activities begin or in direct response to a specific incident, because the rule has to be neutral, not partisan. (Check with your own attorney in case your state has specific limits.)

Executives need to be educated about those ground rules and how to handle questions from customers, the public, or the media about political issues. Comment about issues, not people. That is always safer than commenting on specific politicians. If you choose to comment as a business, try to do so in a way that keeps your doors open to those with different opinions.

In retail stores or any business that has doors open to the public, all employees need to be trained on how to react if a person enters and engages in political activity. Mindful that video recordings may be made at any time, employees need to know how to avoid saying or doing anything that could be construed as hostile or partisan. When an agitated customer berated a Starbucks barista in Florida after the election, the barista’s ability to remain calm under pressure limited any potential harm and helped end the incident faster. The viral video clearly showed that only the customer was behaving inappropriately.

Sometimes seemingly innocuous comments take on new meaning in a politically charged atmosphere, which is why companies need to be extra careful when commenting on any public policy issue. New Balance stepped into hot water when the shoe company’s vice president of public affairs said that Donald Trump’s election likely meant trade policies that would help the Massachusetts-based company. Even if the comment accurately reflected the company’s position, he made two mistakes: He referred to Trump by name and criticized the outgoing administration, also mentioning President Obama by name. Neither name amplified or clarified his key message, and by naming the two opponents, he made his words more overtly political than they needed to be. Had he simply said, “We are hopeful that the new administration will have a trade policy that will help us more than in the past,” few people would have noticed.

Instead, Trump opponents burned their New Balance shoes and called for a boycott, while a prominent white supremacist declared the shoes the “official brand of the Trump Revolution.” And the company has had to do a lot of damage control, including multiple social media posts and paid ads promoting the company’s diversity policy and disavowing hate or bigotry. The publicity attracted critics from both sides, including some who wanted to know why it took the endorsement of a neo-Nazi for New Balance to speak out against hate.

In Milwaukee, spice seller Penzey’s found itself in a similar firestorm after its owner proactively criticized the president-elect and the incidents of hate that have occurred since the election. The company’s social media accounts and phone lines were slammed with people calling for a boycott, and a competitor across town (and whose owner has a family connection to Penzey’s,) touted that it keeps politics out of its business. The long-term impact on the business remains to be seen. Just as one side ramped up calls for boycotts, the other side encouraged people around the country to buy from Penzey’s. Even if the customer service staff was prepared, these past few days likely were very stressful.

Here are a few things that every business can do to help navigate these uncharted waters and avoid similar situations:

  • Know your customers. Few businesses are in a position to alienate customers just because they voted for a candidate that the business owner opposed. Many found diplomatic ways to empathize with people disappointed with or happy about the election without turning any others away. One store in San Francisco invited customers inside for “retail therapy,” but aptly did not mention either candidate’s name. There was no need for a name to be included in order to draw customers.
  • Talk to your employees. Help your team understand that you and your business respect people’s opinions and their rights to express them, but also emphasize that the workplace is not an appropriate place for political activity. Think through how your business may be impacted by the changes in Washington and keep your staff informed, but avoid drama. Uncertainty is a source of anxiety for everyone. Do not add to it.
  • Have a plan. Just as you help your employees plan for and practice procedures for any other emergency, encourage or require them to practice handling customer concerns about a political issue. Help them get comfortable with neutral acknowledgments like, “Thank you for sharing your opinion.” Period. Resist the urge to say more. Most importantly, help them know how to de-escalate when a customer is agitated, including how to call for help when needed.

These simple steps, when put into practice and adhered to, can help you steer clear of problems like others have experienced, and they may help us all cope with whatever happens in the months ahead.