It was 3 oâ€™clock on a Sunday afternoon, with one NFL game over and another due to start in an hour. As I sat contemplating a favorable outcome in the next game, my thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of my phone. The caller ID displayed Public Safety Communications (PSC). My typical experience has been that whenever PSC contacts me, itâ€™s rarely to share good news. I immediately answered my phone and was greeted by the supervisor saying, â€œMark, Chillum Road crash with vehicle on fire and people trapped. So far, there are four known fatalities and five potential fatalities.â€ Having worked at PSC for the first 14 years of my career, I empathized with the supervisor who had more than enough on her hands with alerting additional units and setting up transfer companies to fill empty stations. I quickly acknowledged the information and thanked her for the heads up.
My initial action after receiving the call from PSC was to let my family know I would not be eating dinner with them. Over the 23 years that I have served as Public Information (PIO) for the Prince Georgeâ€™s County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department (EMS), occurrences such as this are not uncommon. Have to suddenly leave home in the middle of the night, coming home in the early morning hours, and being available by phone during some vacations has taught my family to expect the unexpected. Iâ€™m proud to say they have adapted quite well, which makes life smoother both at home and on the job.
Prior to leaving my home, I tweeted what I knew about the incident. Staying ahead of the incident message enables me to maintain control and state facts, as opposed to waiting and allowing others to take to social media with inaccurate or incomplete information. On November 8, at 5:02 P.M., in addition to the location, I tweeted, â€œExtremely critical incident involving a crash with fire, multiple fatalities and injuries. PIO en route.â€
On the way to the scene, I spoke with several assignment desk editors and reporters. Using my vehicleâ€™s speakerphone feature and based on an initial update and the radio transmissions, I provided as much information as possible. I heard the requests for mutual aid from Montgomery County Department of Fire and Rescue Services and the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department; alerts for three medevac helicopters; and the assignment for additional apparatus to set up a landing zone at a nearby elementary school. There were also numerous radio communications between the incident commander and the assigned ICS groups that included safety, EMS, extrication, suppression, transport, landing zone, and staging.
I arrived just as the last injured person was being transported and continued on to the scene carrying my camera bag. From a distance, I captured a few images of the numerous fire and EMS and law enforcement units with all of their glaring emergency lights. When initially arriving at an incident scene, I always look for a safe place to park. An ideal spot is one close enough for me to effectively do my job, far enough away from operations so as not to cause interference, and allows for easy exit when my job is done.
The ranking police officer met me as I walked toward the incident scene and explained in more detail what I was about to see. He mentioned that the Police PIO was tied up on another incident. At motor vehicle crash scenes, the Police PIO and I normally work together in sharing information and providing specifics about our respective agencyâ€™s actions. Once the Fire/EMS role is complete, it is the sole responsibility of a law enforcement agency to investigate potential criminal actions and make notifications.
At the accident site, I witnessed the devastation of the 2-vehicle crashâ€”the deceased, burned out cab of a pick-up truck, and the 15-passenger van riddled with signs of a violent crash. As I observed our firefighters and medics, I could tell from their blank stares that this incident was different than most. Immediately, I put my camera bag in the front seat of the IC vehicle and left it there. There would be no photos taken at this incident. I spread the word that phones and cameras were not to be used by any fire/EMS personnel.
Shortly following my arrival at 5:41 P.M., I tweeted, â€œI am on location, in the 2100 block of Chillum Road in Hyattsville, of a horrific crash involving a passenger van. Multiple fatalities and Injured.â€
A Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) had already been established with patients being triaged, treated and transported from the scene. I checked in with IC and then to a Fire Captain who was trying to keep up with the number of transports. Information was still coming in from various sources to the Transport Group concerning the number of patients transported, approximate age, gender, condition, and hospital destination. I spent some time trying to come up with a consensus on the number of injured. I tweeted again at 6:12 P.M., â€œU/D As of now, Chillum Road, 4 died (3A 1C), 11 transported (6A 5C) injuries range from life-threatening to NLT. Numbers may change. PGFD.â€ The one number that remained consistent was that we had four deceased on the scene.
Media was now on the scene and waiting for an update. There were two ways into the scene, and they chose both ways. With that being the case, there were now two different media locations. One of my first actions should have been to designate a media area. However, there were initially two locations on either end of the incident scene, with media several blocks apart. I went to the eastern end of the scene and briefed media, radio, and TV with what we knew at that point. I captured an image of the incident scene as I walked back to brief the other media group and then proceeded to the west end to also update media there. This group was larger and had a better angle to see the vehicles involved but were far enough away so that they could not see the white sheets on the ground near the vehicles. Another challenge at this location was that a large amount of the community had gathered, some of whom were related to the deceased. The media area is usually established at a location that differs from where the public is allowed. That was not possible in this case, as providing a more feasible location would have allowed a clear view of the deceased. In order to deliver timely updates to all media members, we asked those on the east end to move up to the other location.
My next task was to return phone calls to other members of the media not on the scene. In response, text messages and email requests for information began pouring in. The updated transport numbers used were received from the Transportation Group and verified by the IC. With all transports now complete, individual units were asked the number of patients transported and where. Hospitals were contacted and confirmed the number of patients they were treating and their current condition. A final set of numbers was established.
As fire and EMS personnel were released, they were instructed to meet at one of the stations. A Critical Incident Stress debriefing was held with counselors to discuss the incident, what personnel may be feeling, and the best way to deal with this stress. Information about the debriefing was relayed to the media in very general terms, but the location was not released.
A final on scene media briefing was held, and the final transport numbers were updated. I informed the media that no additional information would be released at that time, and the Police PIO would pick up the responsibility of updates in the morning.
After all of the media updates, on scene and otherwise, my final Twitter update was given at 7:50 P.M., which read, â€œFinal U/D #MCI on Chillum Road 4 deceased (3A 1C). Transported 6 children (4 critical). Transported 8 adults (4 critical) to area hospitals.â€
While heading home, I received a number of social media messages complaining that images of the scene were being posted. The images were of the pick-up truck on fire, a number of injured on the ground, and others pulling victims from the van had been displayed in the moments right after the crash and prior to the Fire/EMS Departmentâ€™s arrival. They had been captured by a neighbor and posted to social media. Several news agencies and non-media sources posted the photos. Although not graphic, the images could be disturbing to some. The Fire/EMS Department has not and absolutely will not use any of the images. They were also edited by nearly all of the media sources, to remove anything that could be considered disturbing. Interestingly, many social media viewers charged the Fire/EMS Department with having the images removed. As PIO, I possess no authority to order any images removed, which would violate an individualâ€™s right of free speech. Had I felt the images were too graphic, I could have brought the matter to the attention of the social media outlets. However, in my opinion, the images did not meet that threshold. Even so, I requested the media to blur any potentially disturbing images. Most media outlets had already either removed the images from their web sites or blurred out victims.
Monday morning brought numerous media requests, most of which were referred to the Police Department. Several requests were made to interview the first arriving personnel, but I had decided beforehand to not allow the interviews. I did present the mediaâ€™s requests to personnel who had operated in command positions, which, understandably, they declined. I also approached the IC about a phone interview with the Washington Post, and he agreed to it. He provided an accurate account of what occurred and how he managed the incident. That story can be viewed by clicking here.
The following are lessons learned and/or reinforced PIOâ€™s management of an MCI:
1. Ascertaining the number of patients can be cumbersome and time consuming, as they may change several times during an incident. Do not invest too much time into reporting a change in numbers each time there is an update. On this incident, I reported the initial set of numbers available upon my arrival and then again at the conclusion when things had settled down. At the end of the day, media is more concerned with accuracy than immediacy.
2. Work with IC on media staging early on into the incident. If police are involved, as was the case with this the incident, ensure that they are comfortable with the staging area. Keep in mind media safety and sight lines of victims.
3. The PIO and IC should approve any images taken by public safety personnel prior to them being posted on social media networks. Remember that images taken in areas where the public is allowed differ from images taken from the incident hot zone.
4. On a motor vehicle crash, the fire/EMS PIO has the responsibility to provide timely updates on their agencyâ€™s actions. The Police PIO has a separate responsibility to law enforcement matters such as cause of crash, who is at fault, victim ID, status of ongoing investigation, etc.
5. Never coerce or force your personnel into a media interview when they feel uncomfortable with discussing what they saw or their actions. Personnel react to stress in many different ways and may not be willing to discuss their actions publically. Consider using the IC in these matters, as they typically do not deal directly with patients but have knowledge of just about everything that occurred.
6. Safety is first, even your own. While driving to an incident scene, do not attempt to use a handheld device to talk, text or answer emails. A vehicle speakerphone connected to your handheld device by Bluetooth or other mechanism should be used whenever you are driving a vehicle.
7. Remember that Social Media, in particular Twitter, is simply a tool in the PIOâ€™s toolbox. Twitter is not an end all â€“ be all. While Twitter streamlined communications between the PIO, the media and our citizens, established relationships and contacts with the media allowed for stress-free communications during a challenging incident.
Mark E. Brady is a 40-year fire/EMS service member that started his career as a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company in College Park, MD. During his career with Prince Georgeâ€™s County he worked his first 14 years in Fire/Rescue Communications and as the Departments Public Information Officer for the past 23 years. Brady speaks at Fire/EMS trade shows and teaches PIO classes for FEMA and the Emergency Management Institute at the National Fire Academy as well as around the Country.