A week of Public Information Officer (PIO) Training

Finally, the hot spell was broken – for a while – last week.  Extreme heat hung around the Midwest far too long and looks like it’s coming back.  Here in the St. Louis area we had 10 consecutive days of triple digit temps.  On several days we broke temperature records.  The heat took its toll on many businesses as well as individuals and families.  With the drought and dangerous dry conditions, many community’s Fourth of July fireworks displays were cancelled this year.  Agriculture has been heavily effected by the heat and drought.  The price of corn and other crops is expected to increase due to future supply shortages.  Outdoor projects (i.e. construction) may have been delayed due to workers working shorter shifts to avoid the extreme heat.  Car washes were impacted due to water conservation efforts put in place by many cities.  And just think, we still have the remainder of July and August to get through.

Earlier last week, I was in Sedalia, Missouri teaching a class for the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency (MO-SEMA).  The class was “Joint Information System (JIS)/Joint Information Center (JIC) Planning for Tribal, State, and Local Public Affairs Officers”.  I’ll tell you more about the class shortly.

 Sedalia Missouri 

The City of Sedalia, founded in October 1860, is the seat of Pettis County in west-central Missouri.  Sedalia is located 90 miles east of Kansas City and 190 miles west of St. Louis.  According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 12 square miles.

Since 1899, Sedalia has been home to the Missouri State Fair – welcoming nearly 400,000 visitors every August to the third largest State Fairgrounds in the United States.  Sedalia also hosts the annual Scott Joplin Festival, celebrating one of the best-known composers of the ragtime era.  The festival is held each year in early June.

The city’s economy is based on diversified manufacturing and service.  New and expanded manufacturing operations continue to grow the service industry and to attract new businesses to the community.  Much of the area surrounding Sedalia continues to be active farmland.

Back on May 25, 2011, a large tornado struck the southern side of the city. Significant damage was done to residential areas in the city, including two mobile home parks. Damage was also done to several businesses. The tornado was part of the most devastating tornado season in United States history which, by the date of the Sedalia tornado, had killed 500 people nationwide.  You may remember that three days earlier, an EF-5 tornado first touched down near the western edge of Joplin, Missouri.

The class

The purpose of this course is to build on the solo Public Information Officer’s (PIO) competencies gained in the Basic PIO (G290) course to applying those skills in an expanding incident where coordination is enhanced through the establishment of a Joint Information System (JIS)/Joint Information Center (JIC). This training equips PIOs with the skills needed to establish and operate in a JIS/JIC.  Participants also gain a working knowledge of operational practices for performing PIO duties within the National Incident Management System (NIMS) multiagency coordination system. The course demonstrates how JIC concepts are applied in a flexible and scalable manner at the local levels. The primary audience for this training is individuals who have public information responsibilities as their main job or as an auxiliary function primarily at State, local, or Tribal levels of government.  BUT … the concepts and tactics can easily be ported into the private sector as well.  Generally, in business, we’re talking about organizations commonly called External Affairs, Public Relations, Media Relations, etc.  Unfortunately, far too often public information (Crisis Management) is only dealt with at the time of incident; there isn’t much planning (if any) that takes place in advance of an incident.

The class focuses on the strategic Joint Information System (JIS), which is the process of how PIO’s will operate during an incident, and the Joint Information Center (JIC) which is the tactile – central location – facilitation of operations defined in the JIS.  The JIC is a place that enhances information coordination, reduces misinformation, and maximizes resources by co-locating (as much as possible) PIO’s.

One of the greatest benefits of this course, beyond the core knowledge, is a series of worksheets that students complete after each unit.  While the worksheets relate the course content to the participants particular work environment, participants generally need to be back on the job to add more details to the worksheets, but what they are able to complete in class turns out to be a good starting point to assess their current capacity for developing and maintaining a JIS/JIC and identify strategies to enhance that capacity.  This exercise is very similar to the exercise I use in the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Program Manager class which I also teach.

STL Metro Area PIO Consortium

On Thursday, my friend Scott, who I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, hosted the first quarterly meeting of the “STL Metro Area PIO Consortium”.  One of the many Public Safety functions Scott performs is that of the PIO for the Eureka Fire Protection District.  The PIO Consortium is a revamped version of a former group Scott facilitated.

The purpose of the Consortium is to offer an opportunity where local PIO’s and local media representatives could work more effectively together.  At this meeting we had PIO’s from many local fire departments, police departments, the Red Cross, and the Postal Service.  For a first meeting, we had a great turnout and a well-diversified group.  In the future, the Consortium will meet on a quarterly basis.

Like any other segment of society, the media has continued to change as a result of both technology and economic reasons.  Today, news gathering and reporting is almost instantaneous with current communications capabilities including social media.  No longer do we see teams arrive on scene to cover a story.  Often, it’s a single reporter who also serves as a videographer.  Reporters are tasked with doing more with less.  Therefore, it’s to everyone’s benefit if we learn to be effective working together in what may be very stressful situations.

In the “Joint Information System (JIS)/Joint Information Center (JIC) Planning for Tribal, State, and Local Public Affairs Officers class earlier this week, we instructed our students that it’s critical to have a strong PIO network established BEFORE the incident and not wait until it’s needed.  The “STL Metro Area PIO Consortium” demonstrates that proactive approach.

Public Information for Search and Rescue

And finally, as the Training Officer for my Search and Rescue Team, I asked Scott (who is also a member of our team) to deliver a presentation concerning how our team might engage with the media when we are mission tasked.  I first started to consider this during a search we were involved with earlier this spring in a local community.  Back in March, we were called out to search for a lost juvenile.  Once we arrived on scene we were confronted with media from all of the local broadcast stations in the St. Louis region, and it was at that point I knew we needed to do some media training and develop a well-thought out “Field PIO” Plan.

The presentation affirmed the following points for our team:

  • We do have a Public Information/Media strategy and process in place to effectively address media inquiries.
  • The process works well and should be followed for all media inquiries.
  • If we are tasked with speaking to the media:
    • Think BEFORE you speak – gather your thoughts
    • Look professional – in the way you are dressed as well as your body language
    • Speak clearly – and don’t speak in technical language
    • End with a preparedness or educational message

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Looking ahead, I hope you’ll mark your calendar now to check back on July 24 when I’ll be blogging from a class I’ll be teaching with my buddy “Joe” in North Carolina.  Can’t wait to have some of that great Carolina BBQ!

Getting Prepared In a Year

Let’s continue on with building our preparedness at home.  Here’s what you can do now to add to your preparedness kit:

From your local store, pick up the following first aid items:

  • Anti-diarrhea medicine
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Two pair of nitrile (not latex) gloves
  • Ipecac syrup and activated charcoal (to counteract accidental poisoning)
  • Adult/Children’s vitamins
  • Denture care items (if needed)

Things to Do:

Take your family to where your utility (water, gas, and electric) shutoffs are located in your house and make sure all of you know how to shut them off properly (if necessary).  If you don’t know, or can’t find your shut-offs contact your local utility for instructions.


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