Where Fire Panic Got the Best of Us - Voice of San Diego

Media UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Where Fire Panic Got the Best of Us

When a crisis hits, balancing the public’s urgent need for information with responsible distribution is bound to cause some slip-ups.

Wildfire season came early this year.

Nine separate wildfires raged around San Diego County, prompting evacuations, structure damage, road closures and a general malaise about our region’s safety against the elements. Media outlets, politicians and local departments flailed to keep the public abreast of developments, and as a result, some cracks in the armor appeared.

Here’s where we saw fire panic rear its ugly head.

County Communication

Tuesday afternoon, the County of San Diego Office of Emergency Services seemed to lose its grip on outreach. The site’s emergency map displayed a notification area disturbingly close to home:

The notification was quickly taken down. County communications director Michael Workman tried to explain the flub to the U-T that afternoon:

“It doesn’t appear to have originated with us at this point,” he said. “It appears to have come from an outside entry. … Whether they were just seeing if they could do it or found ‘our door’ open, we’re going to check.”

He added: “I don’t want to use the word ‘hack’ because there are people who have public access for various reasons. What doors, if you will, are open, we don’t know at this point. We’ll go back and take a look when we can. My goal right now is to have those (emergency services) people work on what’s crucial.”

Meanwhile, the office’s “must-have preparedness app” also lagged behind in its primary purpose.

The emergency site put up an erroneous note Tuesday around 2 p.m., which said more than 20,000 homes and residences had been evacuated. That figure was widely circulated by the Los Angeles Times, ABC News, Reuters and others before Sheriff Bill Gore issued a correction:

As of Thursday afternoon, the note was still on the county’s website.

School Closures — or Not?

Twitter started buzzing Wednesday with rumors about school closures.

Later, more than two dozen districts, including San Diego Unified, did announce closures:

Superintendent Cindy Marten said safety of students, extreme heat and concerns about potential transportation problems in the event of evacuation all factored into her decision.

Supervisor Speculation

Wednesday evening, Carlsbad officials held a press conference to give an update on the scope of the fire there. But Supervisor Bill Horn went above and beyond to offer his theory on the cause.

“I question whether or not six fires haven’t been set by somebody,” Horn said. “Um, that’s just my thought, uh, but I’ve never seen anything like this in 20 years … I’m sure it could all be by chance but I’ll leave it up to investigators. I just think there’s too much of a coincidence here … I don’t have any evidence.” Skip to about 3:40 and 10:30 in the video below to hear his comments.

On Thursday, 10News and KPBS reported that Escondido police brought an arson suspect into custody for questioning. Still, pumping the brakes until you can make a statement without an “I don’t have any evidence” qualifier is probably a good rule of thumb.

So how is this supposed to work?

Balancing the urgent need for information with responsible distribution during times of crisis is bound to cause some slip-ups (and we certainly make our share).

Peter Sanders, public information officer for the Los Angeles Fire Department, said every city’s needs are different but his agency taps a wide array of channels to reach the public.

“During large incidents, we use Twitter, our blog, email and SMS real-time alerts and most importantly, frequent live interviews with TV and radio outlets to narrate,” Sanders said in an email, “and ensure that ‘official’ information is being disseminated as often as possible to avoid the vacuum of uncertainty and rumor.”

Behind the scenes, LAFD is in touch with the media, mayor’s office, L.A. City Council, the fire commission, LAPD and neighborhood councils. On some incidents, they coordinate with the airport and harbor departments, public safety officials at the county level and the rest of the cities throughout L.A. County. The department manages multiple Twitter accounts – a one-way alert tool @LAFD, and a two-way account @LAFDTalk for less urgent matters.

It’s from those platforms that the department addresses bad information when it starts making the rounds.

“The onus is on the public safety agency to keep the public informed, a daunting task in the face of a large incident, but one they should be prepared to do and train to do in times when things are calm,” Sanders said.

His advice to the media scrambling to keep tabs on new developments is the same he heard as a young reporter at a wire service: Be first, but first be sure you’re right. “If you cultivate a reputation as an authoritative news source,” he said, “people will trust you and look to you for real information, while ignoring the bad info out there – even if it’s from other outlets.”

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