If you’re a Houston Cougars, seeing your favorite college basketball team playing for a chance at the NCAA national championship during the March Madness Final Four Tournament weekend was supposed to be a dream come true.
It didn’t work out that way, as the “Coogs” lost in the Sweet 16 round. But volunteering to work at the Office of Emergency Management’s Joint Information Center during the Final Four and ensuring those fans attending the game at NRG Stadium and the March Madness Music Festival had access to vital information was essential to everyone having a great time and being safe.
Its importance could not be highlighted enough by HPD Public Information Officer Allison Hudson. “As you know communication is the hub of everything and it is such a critical component to ensure we are getting the right message out to the right people, at the right time, so that they can make the right decisions,” she said.
As a Houston firefighter, Abby Cortez has volunteered working at Joint Information Centers over the years for the city at the Office of Emergency Management, helping to support efforts during natural disasters, the Houston Marathon and sports events like the World Series.
This time, she supported OEM and the Houston Police Department’s efforts during the Final Four games and the March Madness Music Festival weekend at NRG Stadium.
This experience is like past ones, she said, however, “Each time I learn new things that are useful for future JICs,” Cortez explained.
Hudson said the city had been planning for the event for more than a year, which included a visit to last year’s festivities in New Orleans. “This was months of consistent planning across various departments and agencies, and it is nice to see our collaborative efforts come together for a unified message,” she said.
It all came down to planning and execution, Hudson said. “Having a plan is crucial in just about anything you do. When you have a plan, and also practice said plan, everything comes together, and you have a sense of pride to see things work out that you spent months planning with your counterparts,” she said.
“This is an event for everyone, and it takes all public safety partners and non-public safety partners to prepare for this event and so many other events that are occurring at the same time.”
OEM Chief Communications Officer Brent Taylor oversaw the JIC which provided up-to-date messaging for the crowds at the Final Four and the music festival.
The JIC relies on the experience and expertise of employees from across the city. Volunteers worked between eight and 12-hour shifts and performed various tasks, from gathering important information from partner departments or agencies, to creating graphics and social media content, to coordinating media interviews and live shots, he said. “It’s a great way to get experience and brush up on skills you haven’t used lately,” Taylor said.
The excitement of the University of Houston possibly playing in the Final Four was immediately dashed when they lost to Miami. One day later, Texas was also out of the tournament. Although the crowd was smaller at the events, Taylor said the coordinated plan for the weekend remained the same.
“It was the same with or without the bracket busting games we’ve seen in March Madness. Everyone can feel confident that regardless of crowd size, the city and its partners are ready and capable of maintaining large-scale festivals like this,” he said.
“There are so many moving parts that we want to ensure we know of everything going on at each venue to inform participants correctly,” Hudson said. “Also, we have a job to get information to those who are not attended events as well.”
Hudson also said volunteers from federal and regional offices were also helping with messaging, which included FBI, ATF DEA, HCFMO, Transtar and METRO.
“It was an amazing feeling to see everyone from all agencies working together for one common goal, to get the message out to everyone,” she said.