Here’s the scenario: the City of Houston is hosting a multi-sport event at the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green. This star-studded event also features concerts performed by well-known artists in the pop and hip-hop community.
Events like these also bring an assortment of challenges both on location and social media channels. The biggest of which is how does the city communicate effectively and honestly to the public what is going on and how are those issues being addressed?
These were the challenges presented to City of Houston public information officers and other city public officials learning the intricacies of operating a Joint Information Center during an emergency response.
“We operate our special events with the understanding that incidents can occur quickly and with little notice,” Office of Emergency Management Communications Director Brent Taylor said. "Many times, we will operate for events where nothing significant happens and the event is entirely manageable—that’s the best outcome we can hope for.”
“For those reasons, we stand ready to mobilize resources to ensure the safety of everyone attending or close to a large event,” he said.
The training, conducted at the Houston Emergency Center, focused on providing city communicators an introduction to JIC operations. It included an exercise demonstrating how the JIC works and what the expectations are of communications employees during a disaster response and recovery.
The class of 24 participants were divided into two teams that tackled the scenario laid out before them. They assigned each other roles that are typically used in an actual JIC situation.
“Whether that means serving as a PIO, graphic designer, researcher or production assistant, it takes a team of skilled individuals to put out the consistent messaging and relevant content that leave an impact on the audience,” Taylor said.
Houston Television also plays a vital role in JIC operations, HTV Director Ted Irving said. “We embed a videographer/editor here at the HEC overnight with the Mayor’s Office of Communications to shoot and edit video and get content out on social media and local television stations,” he said.
“We also embed two staff persons at HTV facilities to operate a remote unit that is downstairs for all the live press conferences. We control it from there, but our person is here at the HEC operating the remote camera and does the audio and everything else.”
The city owns four cable channels that are tools that can be used to reach a larger audience regarding emergencies, Irving explained. “Together as a system we can help city departments get the word out about all types of things, whether it’s a storm, a freeze, flooding, etc.,” he said.
While this training was geared toward special events, most JIC operations focus on disaster response and recovery. After all, Houstonians know a thing or two about severe weather, Taylor said.
“OEM monitors the tropical development throughout hurricane season and stay in regular contact with the National Weather Service for any other systems that may cause concern year-round. We also must prepare for chemical exposures, active shooters, and mass casualty incidents where protective actions are needed,” he said.
Municipal Courts Department PIO Jose Soto attended the training and stresses the importance of other department PIOs to participate in it.
“There’s been a lot of change in the positions through the years, so it’s always great to have the departments send their PIOs and communication specialists to these events” he said. “You never know when the next emergency is going to hit Houston, and we have to be prepared.”
Carmen Pena Abrego is the community outreach liaison for Houston Public Library. Her role at the JIC training was as a team PIO leader, overseeing the strategy for creating messaging and effective communication for the public.
It’s different from her typical job, but she said she considered the training valuable. “I think it was helpful for me to step outside my day-to-day role and experience. Being able to identify roles and actions in an exercise is very helpful. It’s rolling up our sleeves and doing it,” Abrego said.
Deacon Tittel, City of Bellaire Fire Chief and emergency management coordinator, oversees a two-person team that is responsible for 3.6 square miles in the City of Houston. The training has helped him realize the city’s operation need to expand.
“We’ve operated a certain way for so long and now seeing this has really opened my eyes and allowed me to think differently on how we’ve handled social media, our information going out and how JICs play a vital role in all of that,” he said.
“We only have two individuals in our JIC that handle all the jobs that we’ve learned, but I’m realizing we need more. With the way social media has gone, with the takeoff and communication piece of that, it needs to be more than just people there,” Tittel said.
Bellaire backup PIO and Library Director Mary Cohrs said she agrees. “That’s what you find in the small cities. You do multiple things. You also know who’s doing what in a smaller city,” she said.
The training goes a long way with establishing networking and information sharing, as well as situational awareness, she said. “The setup here is fabulous, but I wouldn’t know anybody. Now I know people to call. We all work as one team to get the event or incident done,” Cohrs said.
Taylor said the necessity for public communicators to take JIC training cannot be understated. “Every bit of what we do is for the people of Houston. Whether you’re coming to a large concert or sheltering during a storm, the EOC and JIC are operating to keep you and your families safe,” he said.