Angeles Forest officials use Station Fire to fine tune Twitter policy

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A charred landscape is left in the wake of the 250-square-mile Station Fire as firefighters work to complete the final defensible fireline to contain the massive fire in the San Gabriel Mountains on September 16, 2009 in the Angeles National Forest, northeast of Los Angeles.

The Station Fire burned nearly 250 square miles in the Angeles National Forest, destroyed homes and buildings, and sent people and animals running for their lives. But there was a silver lining in those giant pyrocumulus clouds. The fire helped officials fine tune how they’ll use social media during future fires and disasters.

The steep mountainsides of the Angeles National Forest belch out camel-colored smoke. Some flames rush up canyons like bulls on a rampage. The fire creeps down other hillsides, flicking fingers of flame at neighborhoods.

On the police and fire scanners, there's some confusion about whether neighborhoods should be evacuated.

Those were the early days of the Station Fire, which was pretty typical of a big Southern California fire. However, this was the first major fire where the U.S. Forest Service used social media to try to quell confusion. It assigned a special team to update Twitter and Facebook.

Judith Downing is the Forest Service Fire Information Officer behind the social media push.

"People want to know, 'What is happening out there on the fire line? What is this big cloud of smoke that I’m seeing?' 'OK, right now, you’re looking at a ‘firing out’ operation and this is what a 'firing out' operation means,'" says Downing. "And so they can get those alerts every hour on the hour to help them, give them information they need to cope with the fire."

Downing says the idea traces back to a time before Twitter and Facebook took off. She says the Forest Service studied where people got their information during the 2003 wildfires. That’s when the Old and Grand Prix fires ripped through the San Bernardino Mountains, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands of people to flee.

"A lot of people were creating their own reports," says Downing. "They were writing their own newsletters about the fire. They were actually, in essence, becoming their own reporters. And that’s when a lot of this started to emerge."

In the years since, Twitter and Facebook have ballooned on the web – almost as quick as a Santa Ana wind-driven wildfire. So the forest service had to figure a way to get past the typical information cycle of a major fire, when updates come only once in the morning and once in the evening.

"There’s a whole lot of things that happen during the day. And the public has become used to instant news," says forest service Fire Information Officer Ricardo Zuniga. "There’s somebody driving, they stole the truck and they’re going down the freeway. They break in and they see the helicopter. In a market like this, people want to know. They see that bulletin board and say, 'Gosh, it’s noon. This was out at 6 in the morning. This is old news.'"

The Station Fire social media unit tried to send out updates at least every hour or so, especially when the fire was very active and pushing toward homes. Zuniga says the messages didn’t go out to just the media and the public. The U.S. Forest Service used the social media sites internally, too, including at the fire’s call center.

"You got a bunch of people in an office building. They’re getting calls [from] the public, 'I see flames. What’s going on?'" Zuniga says. "Our call center doesn’t know because they’re inside a building. They’re not on the incident. They're using it as internal communication, 'Oh! That is not providing any threat to humans. It’s an interior burn.' And so we are multiplying the efficiency of our information that we get out."

Forest Service officials say they learned they have a lot to learn about social media. Zuniga says the Station Fire helped them fine-tune their procedures on how to deal with “tweets” – what you call Twitter updates.

"We sort of developed a new term amongst ourselves called the 'cleet' because we have to close the loop on the tweets," says Zuniga. "Our last message can’t be, 'The flames are running up the side of Sulphur Canyon. The DC-10 is dropping retardant.' And then – OK, OK, OK. So we’re learning from feedback from media and the public, 'Well what happened?' So we close the loop on our last tweet. 'The fire’s laid down. There’s no threat to anybody. Night operation begins with, you know, no challenges.'"

One of the challenges is the technology itself. The Orange County Fire Authority uses Twitter to get out info, but it doesn’t want people to rely solely on social media for information like evacuation orders. The agency says there might not be cell phone reception to send that information, and what happens if the Twitter or Facebook site goes down?

Fire officials say just like a hose or ax, social media is just another firefighting tool – a tool that “tweets.”

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