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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Communication is the backbone of being a successful PIO

Interview for a news story.
I’m a Public Information Officer or PIO for short. It’s basically public relations for a governmental entity. A PIO’s job is to share information with the community. We do so in a number of ways. We write press releases, speeches, talking points, articles and blogs. We provide community outreach and create educational campaigns. We craft messages to provide critical information to the public. We do interviews with reporters. We network with other PIOs.

The last one is crucial to being a good PIO because informal communication is an integral part of our job. At the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) our jobs get busy when an emergency or disaster strikes, which is no time to call a bunch of people that I do not know asking for help.

Getting together when there are no emergencies or disasters is the best way to build relationships. So when that disaster does hit, not only will I know who to call, but I’ll have a better idea of how they can help. And just as important, they will know who I am and understand my needs.

State and county PIOs participating
 in  a drill.
The State of Arizona has more than 800 PIOs representing state, county, city, tribal, police and fire, hospitals, schools, military and volunteer agencies. Each one does a great job working together and building those important relationships.

Last summer, when the Slide Fire was burning in Coconino County, PIOs representing 13 state, county, federal and volunteer agencies held daily conference calls to share information and discuss communication needs for the community. The calls were civil and productive, and it was helpful to know the people behind the voices.

The Slide Fire conference calls are an excellent example of PIOs working together to discuss whatever the problem may be and to determine who needs to do what.

Arizona PIOs have ample opportunities to get together to share information, network, and learn from each other. 

The Arizona Information Officers Association was created so Arizona PIOs could meet regularly to train, network and discuss issues and concerns.

2015 PIO Symposium
Arizona Public Service (APS) and Arizona State University (ASU) team up every year for the Arizona Public Information Officer Symposium. The symposium draws close to 200 PIOs each year with keynote speakers, panel discussions, and networking time allotted.

One of this year’s keynote speakers was Fernanda Santos, Phoenix Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Santos talked about the importance of the relationship between the media and PIOs. “We can be powerful allies,” she said. “Our jobs are interconnected and interdependent. We need each other. We all want to get the job done well and right.”

As a PIO, I spend time participating in exercises and drills to prepare for potential emergencies at DEMA, working through incidents with partners from multiple agencies and organizations. Developing those relationships with other Public Information Officers is just one more way to prepare for that potential crisis. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Walking Shoes a Must to Tour the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station

PVNGS at night. Photo by: Paul Escen,
Arizona Public Service Company (APS)

Last week, a group of co-workers and I caravanned across metro Phoenix to the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) near Tonopah, Arizona. Situated on more than 4,000 acres of land, PVNGS’s three pressurized water reactors provide electric power to the southwest.

Nuclear power plants use the heat generated from nuclear fission in a contained environment to convert water to steam, which powers the generators to produce electricity.

Driving down the road towards the plant, the cooling towers, billowing steam vapor into the air, grew in size as we got closer to the station.

We climbed out of our vans and began the process of entering the plant. After we signed in, had our ID’s checked, and walked through a metal detector, we met our guide to begin the tour. Walking through the compound, I was surprised to learn that more than a mile separates reactor one from reactor three. The containment buildings are so large (about 20 stories high), it does not seem like they are that far apart.

One of the interesting things we got to do was visit the control room simulator built out exactly like the control room’s that run each reactor. Red buttons, green buttons, temperature gauges, flashing lights and levers were all over the walls of the room. Tables were set up with computer screens showing numbers, temperatures and other diagnostic information.

The simulation control room is a place where Palo Verde employees can exercise response plans and procedures to an emergency occurring in the reactors. It is a safe environment to practice responding to and working through alerts and emergencies.

Some interesting facts I learned on my tour of PVNGS:
  • Construction of PVNGS began in 1976. The first unit went into commercial operation in 1986. The third in
    Reactor fuel assembly
    Photo by: Paul Escen, APS
    1988. The total cost to build the plant was $2.6 billion.
  • Palo Verde generates 3,810 megawatts of power to more than 4 million people in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas.
  • The plant has a full-time fire department, security detail and medical staff.
  • It is the largest nuclear energy generating facility in the United States, employing close to 2,500 people.
  • The reactors and steam generators are housed in airtight, reinforced, concrete structures, which are designed to withstand the force of a 747 jet airplane impact.
  • Palo Verde is the only nuclear energy facility in the world to use treated sewage effluent for cooling water in its towers. The water is treated in an 80-acre reservoir. Twenty billion gallons of this water are recycled yearly.
  • It is a zero-emissions facility, using no fossil fuels to generate electricity.
  • The plant is unique in that it is the only one in the world situated in the desert, not next to a large body of water. 

The Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA), PVNGS, the Maricopa County Department of Emergency Management and the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency annually review, exercise and revise the offsite emergency response plan, which details how state, local and plant personnel will respond to an emergency at the plant.

The Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN) has preparedness information available online. To find out more about PVNGS and DEMA’s involvement, email  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Over the Hills and Through the Desert

Last week, my co-worker and I traveled “above the Rim” to Show Low for a meeting. When we met at the car, I had to laugh. Between the two of us, we had a blanket, two sweaters, two coats, a scarf, lots of snacks, and plenty of water. I had the address programmed into the map app on my phone, and my co-worker had printed out the directions in case we lost cell service. We both had checked the weather forecast that morning as Show Low can get snow. We were prepared for anything just as you might expect from two emergency management professionals on a road trip.  
On the road to Show Low

We settled in for the 175-mile long drive. One of the first things I noticed was the different ways people drive their vehicles. Some drivers are conscientious about what is happening around them and some aren’t – like the gentleman driving next to us who changed speeds so often I got dizzy. He was in front of us, then behind us, then back in front of us, while we continued at a steady pace.

Or the car that weaved from the left side of his lane to the right side and back multiple times. We got away from him as quickly as possible.

The topography between Phoenix and Show Low changes as you gain altitude. And so does the weather. A sunny and cool day in Phoenix might be an overcast and cold day in Show Low.  Snow, rain and freezing temperatures would change how one would drive on the twisting roads in eastern Arizona. Snow had fallen 10 days prior, but there was nothing on the road to worry about.

We also noticed that fire danger was low across the state - about right for this time of year. Unfortunately, that will change soon enough. Fire season always seems to come too soon in Arizona. It is, however, encouraging to see roadside fire danger signs being used to keep the public informed.

Another thing we noticed on our road trip was something most people might not think about – bicycle safety. We drove around a corner somewhere between Globe and Show Low and two bike riders were pedaling slowly up a hill. They were decked out for safety, carrying saddle bags with supplies, wearing reflective clothing, and prepared with blinking lights on their bikes. Drivers need to be aware of the potential of biker riders on any road in the state.

Our meeting was a success and our road trip to Show Low was uneventful, which in this case is a good thing. However, if it had snowed or we had gotten stranded, we would have been prepared.

Find more preparedness tips online at AzEIN.

Friday, January 16, 2015

High Tops & Hoverboards

There’s been a lot made recently of the technology in the movie Back to the Future Part II (1989), which was set—in part—in the year 2015.

courtesy Back to the Future Part II
The big news last week was that Nike plans to release self-lacing shoes like the ones Marty Jr. wears in 2015 in 2015. Pretty cool.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the sequel follows “Doc” Brown played by Christopher Lloyd and Marty McFly played by Michael J. Fox 30 years into the future and then the past, 1955, where—or is it when?—they have to clandestinely stop future Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) from giving a sports almanac bought in 2015 to his past self. Really ... it’s easier if you see the movie.  I’ll wait.

The whole point of this Back to the Future story is to tell you that I recently took a trip back in time to 1971. Regrettably, my time travel didn’t require a Mr. Fusion or even include a DeLorean sports car. All I did was open the yellowed pages of a booklet published by the Joint Maricopa County Civil Defense and Disaster Organization titled Desert Survival: Information for Anyone Traveling in the Desert Southwest.

While not nearly as cool as self-lacing high tops or hoverboards, the booklet does talk about quicksand, butchering a porcupine and preserving raw meat by burying it in the sand. It might work. I don't know. But word to the wise, fellas, stick with surf and turf or restaurant reservations for Valentine’s Day.

There’s also a recipe in here for “survival rations,” which are made with corn flakes, powdered milk, sugar, honey, water, flavored gelatin and salt. Sounds like fodder for a future blog.

In spite of its general obsolescence, the Desert Survival handbook does make some points consistent with our contemporary understanding of emergency preparedness. For example, the author talks about storing nonperishable foods that “have high energy value, long shelf life and [are] light weight” (p. 15); foods like canned fish and soups, dried fruit, juices, peanut butter, and instant coffee, tea and cocoa.

What’s the moral of this story? Maybe there isn't one. Or maybe it’s that emergency preparedness is as good an idea today as it was 44 years ago.

Other noteworthy stuff that happened in 1971:
·         On Jan. 17, the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
·         On Feb. 5, Apollo 14 lands on the Moon.
·         On March 28, CBS airs the final episode of The Ed Sullivan Show.
·         On June 18, Southwest Airlines offers flights between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio
·         On July 15, President Richard Nixon announces his trip to China in 1972
·         On Oct. 1, Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, Fla.

Monday, January 5, 2015

My First Year in Emergency Management

Communication plans and emergency supplies kits and preparedness awareness, oh my. My first year in emergency management has literally blown by amid drills, exercises, articles, and trainings. I thought it would be nice to take a look back at my time at the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA) in 2014.

State Emergency Operations Center
Photo by: DEMA PIO
In my first days as a Public Information Officer (PIO) for the department, I met some amazing people who have dedicated decades to emergency management. One of them, Chuck McHugh, just retired after spending 20 years in the Operations Section. And this was his second career.

In my first week, I toured the State Emergency Operations Center, attended a meeting with all the county emergency managers, and jumped right into the job as it was Flood Awareness Week and press releases needed to be sent out, social media had to be posted, and a blog was waiting to be written.

I got my first taste of wildfires with DEMA’s annual wildland fire briefing, which included Governor Brewer and representatives from the Arizona State Forestry Division, and other fire agency personnel talking to the media about the upcoming wildfire season.

Brown Fire, April 2014
 Photo by: USFS
The Brown Fire on the Coronado National Forest was the first wildfire of the season. I learned about the amazing teamwork and open communication between different agencies as PIOs from state, county, fire, American Red Cross, and more all participated in daily conference calls to provide updates, discuss any concerns, determine what information needed to be shared, and who was going to do what task.

Fire season was also the time I really got a taste of how the Arizona Emergency Information Network (AzEIN), our public information website, works. When a partner agency sends a release, one of DEMA’s PIOs posts it within an hour of receipt, no matter the day or time. Some days, when multiple fires were burning, we would post up to 20 bulletins, some late into the night. (Bonus: I remember watching the news one night and the reporter had AzEIN open on the computer screen behind her – yippee!)

Damage from Aug. 2014 flood in New River, AZ
Photo by: DEMA PIO
Monsoon 2014 opened my eyes to the disaster declaration and preliminary damage assessment (PDA) processes, the workings of the Governor’s Emergency Fund, and how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) handles events after a presidential declaration. Going out on a PDA with the recovery team and the U.S. Small Business Administration taught me how the system works. I not only saw the devastation caused by the August and September flooding, but I witnessed the amazing resiliency and camaraderie of the people that were affected by the storms. Most of them seemed to be concerned about their neighbors, and that field teams talk to everyone.

In the fall, I learned more than I ever thought possible about Ebola. I was proud to see how state and county agencies, along with private sector partners joined together to start planning what to do if an infectious disease like Ebola arrived in Arizona. Once more, teamwork, communication, and determination to cover all the bases was evident as everyone focused on working together.

Palo Verde at Night
Photo by: APS, Paul Escan
I've been a part of a few exercises and drills already, which I always enjoy. I’ve learned about the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station (PVNGS) as I have drilled with their teams in the Joint Information Center a handful of times this year.

And who can forget about preparedness? One of our main goals in the DEMA Public Information Office is to share preparedness information. We provide preparedness tips all year long in the form of social media, articles, blogs, events, releases, etc. Working on becoming prepared for an emergency or disaster really can help when something does happen.

Here it is again, once more. Write and rehearse a family communications plan so your family knows who to call, and where to meet during an event. Create a 72-hour emergency supplies kit – you should be able to survive three days on your own. Inquire about the hazards in your community or when you travel. And inspire others to be prepared by setting a good preparedness example.   

I’m looking forward to seeing what 2015 has to offer me. How about you?