DC train crash highlights some of biggest problems in agency emergency communications

Thanks to crisisblogger reader Doug who pointed out this excellent website called STATter911, we have a pretty good inside look at the emergency communications around the DC train crash that killed 9 this week.

Here are a few key points from Dave Statter’s experienced observations:

– Local media were removed from the scene to where they could not observe any of the EMS activity, but the removal was ordered not by the Incident Commander or the Fire Chief who was leading the response, but by the DC Police Chief.

– PIOs (Public Information Officers) for the response–in other words, those designated by the response commanders to provide the media and the public with information–were directed by the Mayor not to give interviews. The Washington Post reported on this with the view that Mayor Fenty has shown to be a camera-hog with the insinuation that he wanted to be the one to provide the information.

– Mayor Fenty, when he did provide information, provided inaccurate information.

– The newspaper article suggests a fairly bitter divide between the mayor and Metro officials regarding interference in their ability to communicate

Metro’s communication is also severely criticized, particularly it in ability to keep up with the demand for information, maintain an up to date website, and use Twitter effectively.

– Text alerts were terribly delayed: “Commuters who subscribe to Metro’s e-mail alert system, which is designed to give riders early warning of trouble on the tracks, weren’t informed of a crash on the Red Line until more than 90 minutes after news broke online and on local television.” Washington Times article

If you read the actual text of the text alert included you will see another disastrous problem–the problem is described as mechanical. This is appalling considering that the news media had been covering the terrible tragedy for 90 minutes when this text went out.

Passengers and commuters were very upset by the poor communication–no surprise at all given what we have learned about their efforts.

Regular crisisblogger readers will recognize my mantra for effective communication in this day of instant news and internet-focused public communication: Speed, Direct communication and Transparency.

It appears from what we see so far, Metro and all the responding agencies have failed miserably in each of these three regards. There is so much to analyze here because there are so many failures–like why the heck did it take so long to use the text notification system they invested in and put in place. But I want to focus on just one critical element because in recent work with major urban areas and writing EPIAs (Emergency Public Information Annex) I see an increasingly common problem. Elected officials, such as Mayor Fenty, see in such events an opportunity to emerge as the next Rudy Giuliani. They have the power to stifle the response communication and they use it. But in the process, as this case proves, they make it impossible for trained professionals to do their jobs and enable the National Incident Management System to be effectively used.

Emergency managers and elected officials–be warned, be seriously warned. NIMS requires compliance with the basic processes of ICS including the Joint Information Center, and that means that the Incident Commander is the ONLY one authorized to approve public information. It helps insure speed and accuracy–when done right. It also helps ensure that glory hungry public officials don’t interfere with the basic communication task at hand which is to get out the information as to what is happening. The federal government can enforce NIMS compliance by withholding funding from agencies who do not comply. In this case that would apply to the DC Fire Department, the Police Department and the City.

As I mentioned, this problem is more than common in most major urban areas–it is the norm rather than the exception. These problems with public and media communication are going to persist until NIMS communication protocols are enforced. And I don’t think anyone will give them due attention until there is a financial hit to the agencies who refuse to comply.

8 thoughts on “DC train crash highlights some of biggest problems in agency emergency communications”

  1. Actually, the death toll currently stands at 9. One of the issues that Dave Statter addressed was the difference between what the public safety branch (confirming 9 dead) and the Mayor was reporting (7 dead).

  2. I was thinking about this earlier and I think overall, the onslaught of social media isn’t a bad thing. Although, it certainly seems that at times it will cause problems for emergency managers, but then again what doesn’t? The biggest problem I see is that instead of having a chance to react and minimize any damage or start reacting in a way to which the agency can demonstrate that it is reacting appropriately in both speed and response, it will be subject to scrutiny from second one. Instead of focusing directly on the problem as soon as it happens an Emergency Manager can be left to ponder whether or not they should start releasing information so it appears that they are not hiding anything from the public. In my experience it has, at times, been better to spend an hour containing a problem and then reporting a problem and the solution that is already in play instead of a problem and saying, “This just occurred and we are currently analyzing our options…”

    Thoughts?

  3. Once again the distinction between Public Affairs and Emergency Public Information (a highly technical area including Protective Action Recommendations (PARs) issued to public is demonstrated. No question again DC shows that the huge federal investment in DC EM squandered by local EM. When will the Mayors figure this out. Unless they spend more time learning what they need to know they need to have trusted personnel in EM and Public Saftey slots. DC is a disaster and you don’t want to be there in a disaster.

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