Roger Wade: I am Roger Wade. I am the senior public information officer for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. One of the first things that I do when I’m notified about a fire, if I’m told to go to a scene for a fire, the Sheriff’s Office responds in a supporting role to provide traffic support, provide, if necessary, evacuation support for the fire departments in the cases of large fires. One of my duties is to go and be the liaison between the fire department and the Sheriff’s Office and if there needs to be some type of public information released, then I work with the fire department to get that information out as quickly as possible, because some our emergency services district fire departments don’t have their own public information officer or system set up. So, they rely on the Sheriff’s Office to put out some of that information for them. As far as the Sheriff’s Office is concerned, my focus was on the lakes and Labor Day public safety. We take a backseat to the fire department and didn’t really plan for any fire situations. Our focus is law enforcement.
In the last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of incidents around the lake, boating accidents, drowning, things of that nature and that was our focus was to put out safety messages for folks that were going to be out and about for the Labor Day holiday. This particular year, not so much, we weren’t so much worried about the lakes because they were down so far, less traffic because of the drought. The big thing that caught our attention early on, the first fires were reported in Pflugerville and they were big around a subdivision. So, that’s when I was called out to assist the Pflugerville fire department and our deputies on the first big fire out on the Northeast side of Pflugerville. After the second fire that broke out in Pflugerville, the emergency operation center was called up and that’s when I was notified I needed to report to the emergency operation center because everything was starting to happen in the county. They wanted to be prepared for everything and the resources that were required to disseminate them in the right ways and what not.
So, I went from being the on-scene public information officer assisting the fire department in Pflugerville to get down to the EOC,I think this may be a countywide incident. The switch goes from a small incident to a larger coordinated effort. When you operate the EOC, that’s when we’ve got to coordinate countywide resources to make sure we have enough resources to cover each individual incident. The thing about this incident that was so strange for me is that I’m the Sheriff’s Office PIO, I’m not a countywide PIO. I have no experience in fighting fires other than with a garden hose in the backyard, so it was odd for me to be called in to the emergency operation center, but I was the only public information officer in the county to work with all the county departments.
KUT News: Why was that?
Wade: Most of the county departments don’t have their own public information officer so I was the only choice, good or bad, for the emergency operation center. When I was called out to Pflugerville for their one fire, I noticed the efforts from the different fire departments, everybody helping. I saw the area where the fields were burnt around a subdivision, the Pflugerville fire department had saved an entire subdivision. They were still actively fighting fires and I knew this was going to be a big event. It was different for me because, usually, on fire scene I play a background role.
I try to get firefighters or the fire Chief to talk to the media that are on the scene. The fires are usually put out relatively quickly and we move on to the next event. This was obviously going to be a larger event, something that was going to take a lot longer time, something that, while we evacuated a subdivision, we had to keep them out of that subdivision until it was safe. I knew that was going to take longer than just a few minutes. So, normally, on a fire scene, we would evacuate a small area, but this time we evacuated an entire subdivision and it was, kind of, overwhelming. From a law enforcement perspective, I’ve been a police officer all my career, I don’t deal with fires and most of our incidents are smaller, one day or just a few day event and this was going to be, we could see relatively early that this was going to be a much larger event. One of the things, starting out, is, when I was called into the emergency operation center, I realized really quick that this was going to be something that was huge.
My job changed from being the on the scene coordinator of information to somebody who was going to have to coordinate a much bigger scene and I couldn’t be there to assist and that was very difficult for me, going from the person that’s in the midst of everything to someone who is going to have to sit and try to coordinate information from a distance. It really was a completely different animal for me; I didn’t, wasn’t used to that, wasn’t comfortable with that and I knew right away that I was going to need more help. I’m the only public information officer at the Sheriff’s Office. My staff is me. So, I don’t have anybody out in the field to help coordinate that, to work with. I have command staff, I have deputies in the field that I can do that with, but I most generally had hands-on experience, not being sit back and coordinate from a command level.
As soon as I sat down in EOC, I said help. The City of Austin was there in a heartbeat; Candace was able to step in right away. She is more familiar with the emergency operation center and how it works. I have an understanding of EOC; I have an understanding of how it works, I’ve been to all the classes, I’ve been to all the trainings. I know how it’s supposed to go; Candace had hands-on experience with the City of Austin and their large scale events. Also, the City of Austin corporate public information officer, Doug Matthews, he stepped up right away and was here, what do you need; what can we do for you and we eagerly accepted all of their help. This, indeed, was a huge event and it got bigger as the day wore on; not only did we have Pflugerville to contend with, but then we had Steiner Ranch and Spicewood popped up.
Before the weekend was over, I think we had six different fires in Travis County. So, we had people calling from all different areas and the toughest thing was that Travis County didn’t have the Facebook pages and the Twitter accounts and people were confused, I think, because we’re telling them to go to the City of Austin site, but it wasn’t in the city, this is in their neighborhood in Brier Cliff that they were trying to find out information. We didn’t have county folks that could keep the sites going or were putting up information. I was focusing everything through the City of Austin and getting Candace to help us out and Doug and all the PIO’s were putting everything up through the City of Austin site and I think people became confused just where to go to try to get information. They were calling their local officials; their local officials couldn’t get the information. Nobody thought to go to the City of Austin sites for a while.
The first press conference was held relatively quickly Sunday night before the 10:00 news, but we still had reporters that were in the field that were upset because they couldn’t get down here for the press conference to ask the questions that everybody was asking. We made sure all the stations got the information, but the reporters were just as flustered as the citizens were out at the scene. So, it was a very confusing time for everybody. It was also confusing for the fire Chiefs on the scene. The Spicewood fire extended out of the jurisdiction of one fire Chief and into another jurisdiction.
We had Hayes County public officials were calling us because the fire was moving South towards Hayes County. What do we need to do here? They were building a fire line at the county line, but didn’t know where the fire was exactly and it was frustrating for us at the EOC because we didn’t have a public information officer with the fire Chief in Spicewood to give us the feedback from the fire Chief. The fire Chief was telling us, we need more resources; we’re fighting these fires, but at the same time, that information about where the fire was wasn’t coming back to the EOC and that was just a communication glitch that we have been working on since the fires to try to make sure that, in the future, we get that information and share it back and forth.
At one point, we heard that the fire was 10,000 acres in Spicewood. We then heard that, no it’s 6,000 acres. Well, that’s a big difference. We later found, during the after action reports that the fire Chief in Spicewood was just counting the acreage in his jurisdiction, not going across into the other jurisdiction and the fires in the other jurisdiction weren’t as bad as they thought they were, but we weren’t getting all that information. So, it indeed was a very confusing time and when you add to the fact that people don’t rely as much on mainstream media as they used to; they do rely on their cell phones and their smart phones and their i-Pads to get current up-to-date information and while we were feeding current up-to-date information as we had it, it was going out through a website that they weren’t familiar with. They were looking at the county websites; they weren’t looking at the city websites.
So, we have, since the fires, have been working with the city to try to come up with ways that we can put out a better message and through the proper channels. As far as, this was the first big event that was out in the counties and it tested each individual fire department and those emergency services districts, but the coordinated effort was so great that they were able to work together seamlessly. The operations of the EOC was just awesome to sit and watch. Somebody would make a request for a resource, go to the proper station, they would say this is what’s available, we’ll send this. The communications amongst everybody involved in EOC was fantastic. We were receiving inquiries from news media across the world about what was going on in Central Texas.
I set up interviews with Radio Free Russia, al Jazeera, Australia radio and they were getting the story and I think local media was getting the story, but those up to the minute reports that needed to come out of the individual fire areas on what was going on so that people could be calm about what to expect when they get back home was not coming up and that’s what we need to work on better. Candace mentioned that we’ve gone to training. We went to some extensive training on how to set up a joint information system and Travis County has stepped up to the plate. We’ve got another public information officer that is going to be working with emergency management, kind of taking a role similar to Candace’s on the county side. They will be working directly with me at the Sheriff’s Office, so we know how we can improve on the situation if something, God forbid, should happen in the future similar to this, we can step up to the plate and just bombard the public with information on several different levels.
The county has set up an emergency management Facebook page, we are working on Twitter accounts, we’re working on the website. We’ve already put up information from the fire department on the Travis County website about, it’s a simple booklet called Ready, Set, Go to teach you how to get ready, prepare for disaster of any kind and develop that go kit if you have to evacuate. I can’t speak enough about how well the communications worked with all the different agencies that were involved in the emergency operation center, from the school, consortiums that helped us with shelters to the Red Cross to EMS, fire, public safety all worked really well together.
From a PIO perspective, I learned an important lesson that I am not just a Sheriff’s Office PIO anymore; I can’t hide in my little Sheriff’s Office cave and just talk about Sheriff’s Office things anymore. I’ve got to learn about other things so that if some kind of disaster happens, I can step up to the plate just like somebody from the water department or a PIO from Austin Energy could step up and say, okay, this is what’s going on today at the emergency operation center and this is how we’re going to get the information out. I think we’ve actually come to an age when the PIO has to, not only, talk to the mainstream media, but has to realize that there are social media sites out there and that’s the only way people are getting their news. We have to work well with the media too and the media realizes the same thing. Media is setting up their own Facebook pages; their own social media sites so that they can get the information out to everybody, as well. Now, we just have to focus that information and make sure we get it to the right places so people can get it on their smart phones and be able to get where they need to go safely and effectively.