Managing the Information Flow at Large-Scale Emergency Incidents

By Dennis L. Rubin

In addition to the changes computer connectivity have wrought in the lives of fire chiefs at the mercy of cyberbullies discussed in my previous column, instant communication has changed public relations and reporting of the progress of incidents for the fire department as well.

There are many examples of just how quickly and how accurately information moves in our industry today. In the winter of 2007, a second alarm was sounded for a collection of row houses on fire on Fourth and D Streets, NE in Washington, D.C. The second alarm was required by policy, based on the fact that four firefighters were in distress and called a Mayday. As the situation would turn out, the four members from Engine Company 4 were rapidly removed from the burning occupancy and were transported to the Washington Hospital Center Med-Star Burn Unit.

Within a minute or two of the transmission of the Mayday, and well before the families of the injured members were notified, the national media were calling the on-scene incident commander to ask various questions about the situation. It is wonderful that the media paid attention to the work that our people do in the communities every day. However, in this case, the call for background and operational information was slowing down the family-notification process. The commander insisted on contacting the families of the injured members before releasing information to the national media. In the not too distant past, when a firefighter was seriously hurt, there was a significant delay in getting the dreaded story out to the public. With the speed of sound, we are moving vital information out to the public, ready or not.

Another interesting example was watching the CNN live helicopter feed of the well-involved top floor of the Monte Carlo Hotel in North Las Vegas. A world of viewers watched the first firefighters make an amazingly brave attack on the working fire by placing their hoselines over the sides of the blazing building from the roof (the exterior building finish was burning). That’s right!We all were watching the fire develop and advance before a very good and quick-responding fire department could safely make the roof and get water on the fire. (CNN was broadcasting the helicopter feed within a minute or two of the alarm’s going out.)

The rapid communications capabilities are mind-boggling and are limited only by the imagination of the technology users. I bet that for every fire story listed in a printed magazine article, there are thousands of additional fire stories happening almost instantaneously being disseminated around the world electronically. By contrast, looking back just a little bit in time, there was no such capability of delivering the quantity and quality of information in such a tight time frame.

On June 22, 2009*, the District of Columbia’s Metrorail Red Line commuter train track circuit computer failed. Train #112 was traveling at nearly top speed when it rounded a turn into the path of a stalled train (#214) a mere 400 feet away at a complete stop. The train operator applied the emergency brakes, but there was not enough stopping distance to avoid a crash. When the two trains collided, the results were devastating. An estimated 400 to 500 passengers were aboard the two trains; nine died. More than 50 were injured to a degree that they required emergency medical assistance and hospital transportation. Hundreds more were “walking wounded,” simply needing help to get out of a hostile situation and back to their homes. The National Capital Region fire-rescue response was incredible that day. All of the 400 to 500 passengers were triaged, treated, tracked, and transported within the first hour of the accident’s occurring. The noninjured passengers were allowed to go to their residences. Five victims were severely trapped in the remaining steel, wood, and aluminum components that were once commuter railcars. It would take hours to disentangle the trapped victims at this incident.

For the first 90 minutes or so of this major event, there were three District of Columbia Fire Department public information officers providing as much information as they possibly could about this crash. The local media were buzzing that this crash must have terrorist ties. Next were the rumors that the train operator was not paying attention, which was completely false. The train operator activated the emergency brake as soon as Train #214 was in sight; because of the twist in the tracks, that view only afforded a stopping distance of 400 feet–not enough rail surface to stop the train traveling at top speed. In reality, the operator was a hero that day and likely saved lives by her actions. After the first hour and a half on location, the mayor’s office directed the fire department PIO team to prepare for a mayoral press conference. From the time we received the press secretary’s phone call until the mayor was on location and talking to the media, about 45 minutes passed. It was amazing to hear negative comments about “blacking out the news media” and that we only play up to the national media (neither statement was true). And this was all because we waited about three-quarters of an hour to get organized and conduct a press conference with the mayor and the chief of police.

The term “feed the beast” gets tossed about as it relates to providing information to the media at a significant event. This was exactly what it felt like to all of the first responders trying to resolve this disastrous crash and save lives. Not only was this small window of “off air” time frustrating to the media during a mass-casualty incident, it became a topic of future negative discussions. Of course, this dialogue was to express the media’s frustrations about waiting for the mayor to arrive, and it focused on what they called a “47-minute news blackout.” This debate raged on for a few weeks.

The lessons learned were the following:

1. Keep providing the information to the media, even if it is “stale” and already discussed items. Shutting the “news tap” off altogether is never a good idea.

2. The local media felt shut out when the national folks arrived (typically from their parent companies). I should have made extra efforts to include the local folks in every aspect of the media presentations. Remember that when the national and international press go home, you are left with the media locals, and they are always watching your department. Adding the local folks to a discussion wouldn’t have taken anything away from the reports and would have allowed the hometown media to feel a part of everything.

These two steps would have been good remedies for the complaints expressed, but hindsight is always 20-20.  

Dennis Rubin has written a book that has more details and case studies about being a fire chief in a fairly busy city–Washington, D.C.–to be published by Fire Engineering near the end of the year. If you enjoyed this information, you will certainly like D.C. Fire: Its Not Just a Job.

Dennis L. RubinDennis L. Rubin is the principal partner in the fire protection-consulting firm D.L. Rubin & Associates. His experience in the fire and rescue service spans more than 35 years. He has served as a company officer, command level officer, or fire chief in several major cities, including Dothan, Alabama; Norfolk, Virginia; Atlanta, Georgia; and Washington, D.C. He served on several committees with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, including a two-year term as the Health and Safety Committee chair. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officers Program. 


* CORRECTION (1/9/2013): The original version of this article had the date of the rail crash as June 29, 2009. The date has been corrected.

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