Managing the Media at Major Haz-mat Incidents

Managing the Media at Major Haz-mat Incidents


Leonard S. Murry’s Training Notebook

Not many emergencies tax the modern incident command system as does the major hazardous materials incident.

Fire departments and other designated emergency responders have invested hundreds of hours in training and preplanning for these incidents, and with good reason. Yet, such intense efforts have drawn our attention away from a critical element of the incident command system: the public information sector. Lack of attention to this area jeopardizes successful mitigation of a serious haz-mat incident.

Most departments have been sensitized to the importance of establishing good relations with the news media and already have some type of public information system in place. The person responsible for this information flow may be a designated information officer who responds to all major or newsworthy incidents, or it may simply be a staff officer designated by the incident commander. Regardless, it’s essential to remember that a major hazmat incident will soon overwhelm the resources of the traditional information sector as we know it.

Remember a basic rule: If you’re in charge of the incident, you must be in charge of media management at the scene.

A major haz-mat emergency has four distinct, geographically separate areas that require staff and resources from the information sector. They are the actual incident site;

  • the main command area;
  • a secondary command or staging area; and
  • the civilian evacuation site.

The incident site

The media should be given a chance to view the incident from a safe area closer than the general public is permitted to go. Otherwise, the ambitious photographer or reporter might circumvent the incident perimeter and possibly interfere with operations. If emergency personnel are permitted in the cold zone without protective clothing, there is no reason why a forward media area cannot be established there. From there, the media will be able to view personnel who are preparing to enter the contaminated area. This set-up also demonstrates to the public that there is indeed a need for tight, orderly restrictions at the hazmat site.

Although you may not have a designated spokesperson in this media area, someone will be needed to escort the media in and out of the area, and maybe point out the details of the operation.

Once control of the incident has been achieved, it’s not unusual or unreasonable for you to “stage” certain aspects of the control process. For example, if a great deal of foam was used to control a dangerous leak or spill, you might want to flow a few gallons from a foam nozzle in order for the media to get some clear pictures of what you were doing. This, in turn, helps your public understand how the incident was controlled.

The main command area

The main command (or rear command) position should be the main check-in point for all media arriving on the scene. A well-marked media area should be designated a short distance from the actual command post. Regular briefings to update incident progress should occur here. The primary public information officer will be needed here, as well as designated spokespersons who will comment on incident operations.

In extended incidents, you will want to make provisions for some type of shelter as well as for an uninterrupted power supply for media use. Depending on the accessibility of the main command area, you may want to designate a parking area for the live television trucks that will be covering the incident. They may be more easily placed, however at the secondary site.

Secondary command or staging area

This area is usually removed from the main command post and is used as a staging area for additional personnel and equipment, as well as a command area for the various support functions of the incident. It will normally provide a suitable place for parking media vehicles such as satellite trucks, microwave vans, courier cars, and the like, and is a logical place for the “live from the scene” broadcasts. The staged equipment can provide a realistic backdrop, yet there is minimal interference with the incident operations.

Although most modern TV vehicles are able to generate their own power, a dedicated power source is needed for those that aren’t so equipped. If possible, one or two separate telephone lines should be provided to eliminate interference with telephone service being used by incident personnel.

The secondary command location should also include a briefing area. This would be the logical place for political officials and technical experts to make statements concerning the incident. Any major news conference should be held in this location.

The evacuation site

Civilian reaction to the haz-mat incident is always a big story for the media. In fact, incidents that last for several days, in which civilians have had to be evacuated or have incurred property damage, will usually be covered mostly from the human-interest perspective.

At least one public information person will need to be assigned to this area. It’s critical that civilians be kept informed of incident progress and that all rumors be quickly investigated, and confirmed or denied.

It’s also crucial that there be a representative of incident command to counter any false claims made to the media by upset or angry civilians. Remember, displays of emotion will make the news ahead of your statement of actual facts. Chances are that your carefully prepared statement of incident chronology showing that you had the leak stopped within 30 minutes will air somewhere after the distraught citizen complaining that “all they did was stand around for an hour and look at books!”

Since most evacuees will be upset about leaving their homes, it’s also important that some control be exercised over media access to the evacuation area. Some people are very touchy about the press and this isn’t the place to cause a scene.

Other considerations

Communications among the information sectors is vital. A separate system of communications should be arranged so that the actual operations communications won’t be interrupted. One very effective means is the use of cellular telephones. This provides immediate, uninterrupted communications among the information sectors and can also be used to communicate with the various media organizations.

When discussing the incident with members of the news media, speak in as plain language as possible. Don’t use haz-mat or fire department terminology unless it’s absolutely necessary. They might not know chlorine from gasoline, or level-three protection from a crash suit. Explain what’s going on in language that’s plain and easy to understand because they will, in turn, have to explain it to the public.

A major incident will draw media coverage all over the country. At a recent train accident near Baltimore, Maryland, there were over fifty television trucks from stations based as far away as Boston, Massachusetts. Don’t be overwhelmed by all this coverage to the point where you begin to ignore your local media. It will be the local newspaper reporter who will still be there next week during cleanup to tell all about your many hours of training that paid off in controlling the incident.

Here are a few simple tips when preplanning the information sector for a hazardous materials emergency:

  • Identify your primary and secondary spokespersons and the other staff likely to be part of the information sector.
  • Meet with representatives of the local news media and get a feel for what their needs might be at a major haz-mat emergency. They’re more than happy to do anything that will enhance news coverage of a major incident.
  • Identify resources, such as cellular phones, tents, office supplies, copy machine, etc., so that they can be accessed easily when the incident occurs.
  • Identify possible media areas in haz-mat preplans so that valuable time is not wasted finding a good spot when the incident occurs.
  • • Be prepared for an onslaught of media vehicles. In a major incident, most local TV news organizations will send at least two live-transmission trucks in addition to several cars.
  • Have some type of media-notification system in place so that news desks won’t swamp your communications center with calls during the height of the incident.

The media can greatly enhance the image of your department during a hazardous materials emergency. You must face the fact that the news media will be there, and developing a positive, proactive relationship with them will benefit both your department and the citizens you serve.

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