Lead Your Community Through Crisis with New Media

Well, it’s that time of year again; the annual fire season is upon us. The dragon comes out of her lair and looks across the land to see what it will burn.

For some of you the dragon has never really slept this year. The western U.S. is still in a drought, and some areas have never even had a chance to put their engines and aircraft out of standby mode. As of April 22nd, California still had 76% of the state in extreme drought and 24% in the exceptional category. Without the late rains the state would have seen fire conditions for the record books. As is, it could still be a rough season. Some of our agencies like those in Monterey County and Fort Hunter Ligget are in the exceptional zone. We will be rooting for their battles and safety when the temperature begins to rise.

The problem was figuring out who to trust, what was fact, and what was hype. There was a lot of misinformation coming from the media.

California isn’t the only state with drought issues. The Southwest, Oregon, and eastern Washington are up there in severity as well. Fire managers and prevention officers are now in overdrive to get the word out about the coming fire season. (If you haven’t already kicked into overdrive in the southwest, you’re already behind the curve).

Appoint A Voice for Your Agency

Designating someone who has had some public relations training to be the main voice of your agency is important. This creates credibility for your agency.

During the Boston Marathon bombings, Twitter and Facebook were a primary source the public looked to for information. The problem was figuring out who to trust, what was fact, and what was hype. There was a lot of misinformation coming from the media.

At the end of the day, your agency needs to be the primary source of information. Do not rely on your local media to tell the public what they need to know unless you have direct contact with them and can vet their statements.

It is important to drive home to your citizens that your agency should be the one to listen to, and not a local blogger who is tweeting inaccurate information. Having a public information officer at the command post who is tweeting, updating Facebook, and calling radio stations should be part of your incident response team.

Getting the Word Out

As a fire prevention officer you have lots of tools in your bag to educate the public on the coming fire season. From local fire safe councils and national programs, getting the word out to the public should not be an issue. Getting the public to listen can be frustrating. There are new tools in the world of technology that can help spread the word.

Social networking has created a paradigm shift in the world of news and information. Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds, and other services can now provide a great way to keep the public informed on prevention and ongoing emergencies. Let’s take a look at a couple of these new tools and how they can help with your voice in your community.


You don’t need to be a large organization to use Twitter. In your agency you can designate a prevention officer to be in charge of your Twitter account to pass along important—but most importantly, accurate—information. The nice thing about Twitter is its ability to send push notifications to civilian smartphones. I would strongly suggest appointing a single point of contact in your agency for your Twitter account.


Facebook is another commonly used venue to get information to your citizens. With Facebook, you can post videos, upcoming events, and links to national prevention programs.


Good old fashion town meetings and radio are still good as ever. AM radio is still a great source for prevention messaging and ongoing incidents. Public Information statements at your local AM station are free to broadcast on the air. That’s one of the primary reasons the AM band is there. Getting information to the public before a disaster strikes and keeping the conversation going is key in today’s fast information age.

Training the Public to Respond

One aspect of public education is what to do when disaster strikes. Technology has come a long way there as well. Cloud technology has made it possible to “keep things alive” after a fire or weather disaster. I can remember telling homeowners who live in the urban environment to have their keepsakes at-the-ready in case a wildfire threatened their home. Picture albums, important documents and other things you can’t function without would be at an arm’s length from the door. This could translate to people who live in more severe weather areas of the Midwest as well. With cloud technology, you can now safely keep these things safe from the dragon’s breath or any other natural disaster.

Digital Keepsakes

At my house I have scanned and uploaded all my important documents, including photos. For my photos, I use a cloud picture service. There are many out there to choose from. All my important documents—birth certificates, passports, house title, and more—I have uploaded to a Dropbox account. There are lots of other great cloud storage tools out there as well.

Passwords & Important Documents

Probably the most important information I have stored in the cloud are my passwords. Using a program like KeePass for Windows or 1Password for Mac, you can safely store your passwords, then back them up in a Dropbox. This setup gives me a sense of ease knowing I will never lose my usernames and passwords. These programs are encrypted and safe to use.

One aspect of public education is what to do when disaster strikes.

Online Computer Backup

Last but not least I backup my computer to a cloud storage service. Of course there are some things you can’t digitize—like your dog or kids! But having some of your life stored away from disaster is priceless.

Prevention & Public Relations

In reality, prevention and public relations spans the whole spectrum of pre- and active-incident response. From hazmat to terrorism, wildfire or multivehicle, using these new digital tools can help you get the word out fast and, if done right, accurately. When you do that, you empower your community to respond appropriately to protect the things they love.

Stay Safe,