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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Knoxville News Sentinel: Social media underused in Gatlinburg firestorm
A Personal View

Photo courtesy Tennessee National Guard

Excerpt from the article:
A spokeswoman for Gatlinburg said neither the city nor its public safety agencies had any social media accounts when the Nov. 28 inferno responsible for 14 deaths, more than 180 injuries and the damage or destruction of more than 2,400 structures struck the city. Officials said damage from the fire will exceed $500 million.
Since the disaster, spokeswoman Marci Claude said, the Gatlinburg Police Department "has created a Facebook page to share information with the community."
In contrast, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park continuously updated information on its Facebook page and Twitter account throughout the day warning of the growing danger. National Park officials warned of the unpredictable fire, the increasing winds moving flames toward Gatlinburg and ongoing evacuations within the park.
The park started sharing information at 10:46 a.m. on Nov. 28 about the fires marching north toward Gatlinburg.

Read the entire article on Knoxville News Sentinel
This is so sad. Too many in local governments look down on social media as a tool, or view it as a tool to build personal fiefdoms.
The failure of Sevier County to deliver information to residents has probably resulted in the deaths of some of the people they were responsible for protecting. Of course, they would not have been in that situation had the Chimney Top Fire been set. I know a lot of people hesitate to blame their local government when they make mistakes, or fail to properly do their duty. That kind of behavior needs to stop. The only way anyone, even governments, can improve is to acknowledge mistakes and work to make sure they don't happen again. Wildfire Today has an excellent article analyzing the events that led up to the firestorm. [WildFire Today]
The article points out that the National Park Service had been warning of the approaching wind event. The Incident Command Team in our area had been preparing for it for days by burning out the Camp Branch Fire and patrolling fire lines on the other fires.
In the daily weather briefing that was published at 5 am on Monday morning, Macon Media warned of the high wind event that was coming. [LINK] When it did get here, downed power lines did spark fires, but our volunteer firefighters were prepared and stopped them from spreading.

(I probably shouldn't post this commentary because it goes against the general policy I have established for Macon Media of not expressing an opinion on news items. --Bobby Coggins).

A lot of elected officials and bureaucrats in our area tend to either look down on social media, mock it as a source of "fake news," or use it in a fashion that limits who can see official updates. The ones here who tend to do use it, share official information on personal profiles with privacy settings that mean only their friends can see the information and it cannot be shared outside that circle of friends unless it is copied and pasted, which one of the news outlets here tends to do.

My personal experience during our wildfires was that getting information out of the local county government was a mixed affair and other news outlets were given access Macon Media was denied. Some department heads were generous with sharing information (I won't name those who helped because I don't want to potentially get them in trouble), while others would always point me to other department heads or the PIO of the Health Department.

Once I contacted Rabun and Jackson Counties and requested information, they were very professional and timely with sharing information for me to relay to the public.

The USFS was wonderful to work with and they were professional and timely in delivering information. Because of the workflow and open design of the USFS and the National Interagency FIre Cache websites in creating maps and compiling data, I often had information hours before the daily morning briefings at the Command Post were presented. The Daily Briefings at the Command Post in Franklin were, according to what I was told, "not for the press or public" while the Daily Briefings for the Rock Mountain Fire were streamed live online, so there were differences in the way the ICTs (Incident Command Teams) viewed their role in delivering information to the public.


Macon Media and The Macon County News and Shopping Guide almost missed the visit of the governor to the local Command Post even though we arrived early and checked in with both the CP and the governor's staff. I would not even have known of the visit had someone had not gone outside the chain of command and told me. We were in the lobby with a state senator waiting to be told the governor had arrived and were never notified when he arrived. If the reporter for the Macon County News had not got up and just went back to a briefing room in the back I had not been aware existed, but she did, neither of us would have been able to cover the story from a first person perspective. Of course, a reporter from The Franklin Press was already there in the briefing when we arrived, having been given access we were not.


In 2017, I will be more aggressive in obtaining official information held by local, state and federal bodies to share with the public. In the past, I have been far too passive in this regard. I will clearly identify those who are difficult to work with and those who favor certain news outlets over others. When I do share observations or opinions, they will be clearly marked as such so you can decide if you agree or not.

As always, when I make mistakes (and I inevitably will) feel free to let me know. When you do that, you help Macon Media become better at delivering accurate information. It is my personal view that news collection, interpretation and delivery is a collaborative effort, and will become even more so in the future, and not something just for elite "journalists" to tell you what is important or what to believe or who act as cheer leaders for local government when they should be holding their feet to the fire. Cheer leading the local government is the job of county employees. The proper role of the media is to deliver accurate information and to dig for news, not to be the local pravda.

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