A Busy Time for Fire Information Officers

While an army of nearly 14,000 firefighters battled the wildfires in Southern California last week, a smaller squadron of fire information officers was busy back at the command center. They compiled the statistics and wrote the updates that reporters put on the air. It's a tougher and more frustrating job than you might think, as KPCC's Julie Small found when she tagged along with one during the Harris Fire in San Diego.

Julie Small: Martin Johnson got his orders to report to the Harris Fire command center in eastern San Diego County just hours after the flames erupted.

Martin Johnson: Usually they want you on the road in one hour. So once you're given that call, your bags need to be packed. You need to be ready to go.

Small: But the chief of the Santa Barbara Fire Department wasn't heading there to jump on a fire truck.

Martin Johnson: The information section which I'm in charge of handles all media, puts the public face on the incident, tries to address the public's concerns and be as responsive to their needs as well.

Small: As Johnson drove from his Ventura home to the fire command center in El Cajon, powerful Santa Ana winds blew the fire across thousands of acres of brush land. Phone calls from government agencies and reporters looking for information poured in by the hundreds.

Johnson and Riverside County Fire Chief Julie Hutchinson handled all those calls. They started at two in the morning ... and answered calls until midnight. Twenty-two hours straight. Hutchinson asked fire personnel at the command center to help out.

Julie Hutchinson: The total of these fires combined is the equivalent of a natural disaster, so there is going to be media here and we're going to have them escorted around. If you can help them out, please do so.

Small: As the fires grew, so did the number of questions and camera crews. And the number of information officers went up, too.

[Sound of cell phone ringing]

Scott McLean (answering phone): Scott speaking. Hello? Okay, who is this speaking again, please?

Small: Scott McLean, a fire captain from Butte County, kept track of media in the field.

McLean: Three voice mails!

Small: Reporters have the right to cross roadblocks into evacuated areas, but information officers track their locations so no one gets hurt.

McLean (talking to reporter): How we doing? PIO ... Need anything?
Reporter: No. I'm good.
McLean: You good?
Reporter: Good.
McLean: You look silly in the mask, though. You're cheering me up.

Small: The fires attracted national media. News anchor Katie Couric flew in on a CBS helicopter. Anderson Cooper dropped in with his CNN crew. Information officers help celebrity media get to the most active areas of the fire for those compelling camera shots.

Geraldo Rivera (on TV): Just pan up there behind me. This is basically the front line here in the east San Diego County area...

Small: Scott McLean smoothed over a dispute between Geraldo Rivera and firefighters when the Fox News celebrity journalist shot a segment for "The Bill O'Reilly Show." They told Geraldo to leave.

Rivera (on TV): Eighteen hundred homes gone. The extent of human suffering ... very profound.

Small: So he was up here and he got chased out and they weren't supposed to chase him out?
McLean: Media has rights; unless it's a criminal violent scene, or they're in peril or jeopardizing one of our evolutions, then they can go where they want. Even you.

Small: Information officers led Geraldo to a safer spot that still offered a compelling backdrop.

Rivera (on TV): The flames that were driven by that blow dryer, flame thrower, east wind – Santa Ana wind – came scorching through here.

Small: For good measure, Scott McLean loaned his vehicle as a backdrop. That effort to provide Geraldo a nice camera shot ate up a good hour of McLean's time.

Rivera (on TV): Okay. Foster City in Menlo Park, guys. Bill O'Reilly, say hello.

Small: McLean rushed to an evacuation center for a very important visitor.

Man: He's coming down this way.
Woman: Yeah, Arnold's here!

Small: After Schwarzenegger leaves, the information crew gives the nightly briefing to evacuees. And they'll return in the morning. They understand that people want to know as much as possible about the fire – how many structures have been lost and where, what firefighters are doing to put it out, and if the fire's spread to any new areas.

Scott McLean drove an hour to the remote mountain community of Carvacre to meet with homeowners deliberating what to do about a voluntary evacuation advisory.

McLean (at meeting): We were sent out here to discuss something with somebody. You know who would have called us out here?

Small: As it turned out, the community fire council had just adjourned. Most of the people had decided to leave and were driving their pickup trucks down the mountain. Scott McLean did the same, so he could get to the next meeting and the next phone call and the next reporter.

McLean (on phone): Scott here. Can you call me back in a half hour? I'm real busy here.