Skagit Bridge Collapse Public Information: Media and Coordination

Skagit Bridge Collapse Personal Lessons Learned
Marcus Deyerin
Northwest Washington Incident Management Team

Trooper Mark Francis, the Washington State Patrol PIO for this region, tweeted out my phone number for media at 8:38pm. The first incoming media call occurred at 8:40pm, and then it was then was non-stop until about 10:30pm. This is reflected in the drop-off in my tweets during this period. Again, if I had utilized both of my phones, I probably could have worked a few more tweets in during that period.

Common media questions that were (and will always be) difficult to answer:

Q: What was/is the condition of the patients/victims?
As someone who works in the public health field (my day job is an emergency manager for a local health department) – I am acutely sensitive to HIPAA restrictions on the release of patient/victim information. In that way, it puts me at a disadvantage because I can’t claim ignorance in the same way another PIO might be able too if they over-shared patient information. However, I can’t honestly say I know what the bright shiny line is in regards to protected patient specific information in a crisis situation. In the absence of that precise knowledge (although I’ll be doing some homework), I try to look at it from the perspective of a family member. If I were at home, and I recognized one of those vehicles in the water as belonging to my spouse, sibling, child, etc. – would I really want to hear anything but good news from some random guy on the TV? I’ll never forget a colleague who worked in disaster mortuary affairs that once said, “Anderson Cooper has done more death notifications than any medical examiner in the country.” And he didn’t mean that in a good way.

Personal lesson learned: if I can share good news in a generic way, I will (e.g. “the driver of vehicle X was walking on their own – but otherwise I’m not familiar with [or can’t disclose] the extent of any injuries they may have sustained.”). But I will never speculate about someone’s medical condition when it’s unclear, and whenever possible, bad news about any specific individual should be delivered by medical professionals directly to a victims family. I know that’s not always realistic – but I personally think it’s a goal we in the public information field should aspire towards.

Q: How many “X”…
The media seems to have a fixation with numbers. I’m not certain why that is – perhaps it’s some kind of recognizable yardstick by which to compare one disaster with another. I personally find it a little annoying and unhelpful in the immediate context, unless it has a direct bearing on the public’s safety. But it is what it is, and it isn’t likely to change.

Personal lesson learned:

  • Be prepared to offer numbers for something – anything; but emphasize these are estimates and likely to change (because they almost always do).
  • Know the difference between estimating something and speculating (i.e. guessing). This distinction will be different for every individual based on your personal knowledge base and experience. For example, I felt comfortable estimating the depth of the water where the bridge collapsed based on what I saw; but for me to make any statements about the extent of someone’s injuries, or what caused the bridge to collapse, would have been pure speculation. Consider the difference between “I saw these two people walking on their own” [factually accurate] vs. “I saw them walking, so I think their injuries aren’t that bad.”

While the two questions above were the most common, there were many more I received that I simply wasn’t in a position to answer, either because I didn’t know (common), or because I just wasn’t the appropriate person to answer, or both. When that happens, all you can do is say “I don’t know but I’ll try to find out, or direct you to someone who may know.” This is where interagency coordination comes in (more on that below).

I only had one frustrating experience with media…and that was boundaries on time. Once the phone started ringing, it didn’t stop for over two hours. I actually think it would have been longer had there been more severe injuries / fatalities, or if the incident had occurred earlier in the day. Ninety-five percent of the reporters I was able to connect with respected that I had a limited amount of time to offer them on the phone. But there were two who stood out as remarkable exceptions. One asked the same three questions, over and over. It was almost as if she was expecting a different answer each time, or just trying to keep me on the phone for the sake of it. Another was obviously hand-writing every single word I said verbatim (or typing really poorly), and kept asking me to repeat what I’d said so she could catch up. I really wanted to suggest she learn short-hand, or buy herself a recorder; but I bit my tongue knowing I was making my own mistakes as well.

Now the good news. The media I engaged with were very professional. There were a number of times when they had every right to be frustrated themselves.When the incident commander established a restricted area around the bridge for safety reasons as well as to ensure responders had the space needed to do their jobs, the media respected that, even though it took away their best visual vantage point of the collapsed bridge. I was able to get the IC to open up a portion of the river bank for media to get their camera shots (but still not accessible to the general public); but even if the IC hadn’t agreed to that, while they may not have been happy about it – I’m confident the majority still would have respected the boundaries without cajoling from law enforcement.

Later that evening, there was mixed messages sent out about where the Governor would be doing his initial press briefing. We had media staged on both sides of the river, and of course the Governor’s team came to the opposite side of where the media were expecting him (not intentionally – it just happened that way). Because there were some media there, that’s where he conducted his first on-camera statements. But once the Governor’s team learned about the confusion regarding the briefing area, they also did their part and travelled to the other side of the river to conduct a second briefing in the more formal location that had been prepped for that purpose.

I know these things sounds fairly trivial – but in the moment I was expecting at least one media type to express some frustration, but it didn’t happen. Again, the media I encountered were professional, polite and understanding of the challenges I and the other agency PIOs were dealing with.

Agency PIO Coordination
In a multi-agency response, the establishment of a Joint Information Center (JIC) is an imperative, and by Friday morning that element was in place. But in the early hours of this incident, a big challenge I encountered was the inability to coordinate in the field with the other PIO or agency reps I needed to. Had the phones been working, this would have been much easier. But even then, there were a lot of moving parts at the scene, spread out far enough (and in some cases separated by a fairly substantial river) to render the coordination and sharing of rapidly evolving information difficult. The best example regards the truck and driver that Washington State Patrol were investigating as having a possible (now confirmed) link to the bridge collapse. Media helicopters could clearly see WSP troopers converged around this vehicle, and they were asking me what I knew about it – which was nothing. By the time the media on scene were done with me and I had a chance to re-connect with my WSP counterparts, there wasn’t much else I could share with the media regarding the truck that they didn’t already know at that point.

Even if the phones had been working, I don’t think I was really prepared with a strategy to connect in the field with the number of agency reps I would have liked to spread out over a 1/2 mile radius (or 2 miles if you count the physical location of the EOC and JIC). From a personal lesson learned standpoint – I don’t have one other than the nature of the challenge itself. It might be tempting to say it’s a technology problem (the phones were down); but it’s an organizational challenge too. At one point I’d estimate there were at least 300 responder types on scene (fire, police, search and rescue, WSDOT, Coast Guard, even federal customs and border protection). That’s a lot of agencies to try and gather information from as the on-scene PIO. I’m still working on figuring out a good strategy and solution to address this (of which the VOST concept may play a part), and I’m certainly open to suggestions.


Tomorrow wraps up our coverage of the Skagit Bridge Collapse Public Information response by Marcus Deyerin. We’ll be talking some overview, some wrap-up, some mistakes and the most important part of any response.

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