Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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From the Editor: April 2013

As you can see from the cover illustration, we had some fun with this month’s cover story on mobile applications for firefighters.

March 22, 2013
By Laura King


Topics

As you can see from the cover illustration, we had some fun with this month’s cover story on mobile applications for firefighters. Warren Bekker, a volunteer firefighter in Bancroft, Ont., whom I met (virtually) through Twitter – tweeps will know him as @FireWeb_Ont – proposed the story, and I was pleasantly surprised when the first app he mentioned in the story was Twitter: more on that in a minute.

The other apps, from WISER to FlowCalc (see our story on page 8) are more specific to fire, particularly volunteers who may not regularly encounter situations in which, for example, they need to reference hazmat information and quickly look up details on their iPhones or androids.

Back to Twitter. The day before I wrote this I was one of several presenters at a York University seminar on the Elliot Lake mall collapse. My topic: How tweet it is. Or is it? A journalist’s perspective on Elliot Lake and the role of the media in critical messaging about disaster response. I know, it’s a mouthful. But it’s a critical topic for incident commanders, emergency managers and fire chiefs (in Ontario, community certified emergency managers, or CEMCs, are usually the fire chiefs).

I was surprised by the questions I was asked: Why do incident managers or fire chiefs or CEMCs have to give reporters information when they’re worrying about saving lives or protecting property? Who controls what the media reports? If the media gets it wrong, who’s responsibility is it to fix it?

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In Ontario at least, under the community emergency management plan, once a state of emergency is called – as it was in Elliot Lake – there must be a designated media liaison person (not necessarily the IC or the fire chief – maybe the mayor or the municipality’s communications person) to provide information to reporters, who then relay the information to the community and the greater listening or viewing audience.

Why? Because it’s important that the information coming from the scene be accurate, to provide important details to residents about things such as evacuations or roadblocks, to reduce anxiety among townspeople, and myriad other reasons.

We all know what happens when the people in charge decline to, or are unable to, provide details to reporters: reporters will find their stories elsewhere and the information provided by the unofficial spokespeople – angry or frustrated townspeople, or academics, for example – may be wrong, inflammatory, or inapplicable as was the case, by times, in Elliot Lake.

So, once again, back to Twitter. The first question I asked the audience of about 100 emergency managers, first responders, academics and other fire-industry experts/watchers at the York U seminar was whether they were on Twitter. I was surprised: only about one-quarter of the participants said they were Twitter devotees. This was the Friday of the week that the Elliot Lake inquiry started and Canadian Press reporter Colin Perkel (@Perkel) was tweeting live, providing a minute-by-minute account of the sometimes mindboggling testimony. How a group of people so keen to know the details of the inquiry weren’t following the testimony on Twitter was beyond me – some said they didn’t think they had time for Twitter; to me, that’s like saying they don’t have time for their work.

Some of those in the room clearly didn’t understand – or perhaps, more kindly, hadn’t considered – the importance of getting their messages out first to the media to ensure that the information coming from a scene is accurate.

Managing the message so that it lands in reporters’ laps – or their palms – before they have an opportunity to tweet bad information or stories that lack context, is crucial.
Just as there is new portable technology to help firefighters at the scene, the tool for managing the message is in the palm of your hand. Use it.


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