The Power of Collaboration: How Unity and Consistency are Key in an Emergency

by Sonja Dosti, APR, CAPIO Central CA Regional & Membership Chair and PIO, County of Fresno Administrative Office

Throughout the first half of this year, many California counties received substantial amounts of rain and snow from numerous atmospheric rivers. As a result, several counties suffered weather-related damage from the impacts of these winter storms and dealt with the dangerous high river flows from the subsequent snow melt.

Though Fresno County encountered damage to roads, property, and land from the storms, the teamwork and communication between many County departments and agencies resulted in consistent messaging, mass distribution of information, and support from local and national elected leaders.

Consistent messaging

To provide residents with accurate and consistent information as well as coordinated support from many agencies, Fresno County’s Office of Emergency Services opened the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and convened daily in-person and virtual meetings with county departments such as the County Administrative Officer and communication team, Fresno County Sheriff, Public Works and Planning, Internal Services Division, Public Health, and Social Services, as well as external agencies such as the CHP, CAL FIRE, Caltrans, PG&E, National Weather Service and many others. Our communication department was embedded at the EOC and led several virtual Joint Information Center (JIC) meetings throughout the winter storms and floods.

These daily and weekly meetings involving so many agencies and County departments enabled everyone to learn new information in real time, reducing confusion and miscommunication. Since our communication staff worked daily at the EOC, we became the lead for all storm and emergency-related communication, creating and sharing press releases, videos, PSAs, and organizing press briefings.

Having one communication hub made it convenient for County departments and agencies to share the same information and avoid disseminating disparate and contradictory messages to the public.  The same graphics and videos appeared on numerous social media accounts and in the local news media and often directed to the public to the newly created page.

Mass distribution of information

Though the County of Fresno communication team shared information on its website and several social media platforms with thousands of followers, these platforms were insufficient to reach all one million residents in the county. We worked closely with our other departments such as Public Health, Public Works and Planning, and the Public Library to share the same information with their followers.  Our partner first responders, law enforcement agencies, and school districts, some of whom have almost 100,000 followers, also shared our assets.

In addition, our local news media attended our press briefings in person or on Zoom and interviewed the Fresno County Emergency Services Manager and Fresno County Sheriff, often at our request, to help distribute our messages on safety and storm updates. Having so many diverse departments, agencies, and media partners sharing the same information meant that hundreds of thousands of residents were exposed to life-saving information. The positive and most important outcome included very few storm and flood-related accidents and deaths.

Support from elected officials

As the subsequent snow melt resulted in dangerous conditions in both the Kings and San Joaquin Rivers, the Fresno County Sheriff closed them to protect lives. We knew it would be challenging to keep the public away from the dangerous rivers, especially during the 3-day Memorial Day holiday or scorching triple-digit weekends.

Our Fresno County communication team wanted to enlist the assistance of recognizable elected officials to help circulate the message about the dangers of the rivers. Because we were in constant communication with elected officials throughout the winter storm and flooding, they quickly and graciously agreed to be featured in a series of safety PSAs. 

The PSAs were filmed in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Punjabi and included an impressive bipartisan roster: U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, U.S. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy and Jim Costa, California State Senator Anna Caballero, Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, the Fresno County Supervisors, Fresno County Sheriff, City of Fresno Police Chief, the District Attorney, the Probation Chief, any many other local elected officials and first responders.

These elected officials also shared these PSAs to their followers on their social media platforms, extending the reach beyond Fresno County. The diverse group of elected officials and first responders who filmed the same message added both gravitas and importance to these PSAs that were broadcasted to hundreds of thousands of Fresno County residents and beyond.

Building alliances strengthens communication

An emergency shouldn’t be the only reason to ask numerous agencies and elected officials to share a unified message to the public. What we learned from this emergency is the importance of building relationships with as many communicators/PIOs as possible, regardless of their agency or political office. Strengthening these relationships and building alliances will greatly benefit the public during emergencies and many months to come.

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