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:

Firehouse.com: 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.

Active shooter situations: six things everyone should know

Medical staff evacuate during active shooter drill.

Medical clinic staff practice evacuation during active shooter exercise. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Senior Airman Chandler Baker)

Just as school shootings have become frighteningly routine in the years since Columbine and Sandy Hook, the horrific mass-murder in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27, 2018, removed any doubt that mass casualty shootings are a thing in the United States. As terrible as this may be, we also have learned from recent incidents how people can reduce the risk and improve their safety if someone starts shooting. Read more in my LinkedIn post.

 

“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 Amazon.com or BarnesAndNoble.com. Or, order from your favorite bookseller or PublicSafetyPress.com.

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 https://douglevy.com/contact.