A few people have asked me how I was possibly on-scene so quickly. Pure coincidence. My son participates in an athletic activity about a mile from the bridge collapse scene. I heard one, then two, then multiple sirens – and you don’t have to be an emergency manager type for that to get your attention. I opened up a radio scanner app I have, and the first words I heard were “I-5 bridge collapse over the Skagit River…”. I didn’t need to hear it again for confirmation – the number of sirens in the air was confirmation enough. I immediately grabbed my son and we headed to the scene. I knew exactly how to get there quickly since it’s a route I often run while my son is at his activity.
When I arrived, I quickly recognized the on-scene incident commander, the local fire chief and a former team member on the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team (NWIMT). I let him know I was there, but then just stepped back and stayed out of his way. After about 15-20 minutes I again approached the IC and asked if I could help in any way. That’s when he remembered my PIO role on the IMT and asked if I’d be willing to fulfill that function there on-scene.
With phones not working and the “field” nature of the scene, Twitter was the obvious and best platform for communicating information to the public. I spent about 3 minutes trying to get my team Twitter account functioning (more on that below), and then gave up and just started tweeting incident information from my personal account.
Phone and SMS
The phone system was impacted quickly (which I expected), but much more broadly than I would have anticipated. My colleague who was located up in Bellingham reported trouble making phone calls about the same time I lost my ability to call out. Here’s what my notes and phone logs reflect:
6:55pm – bridge collapses
7:10pm – I arrive on scene (estimated)
7:12pm – Outbound call successful (work phone)
7:30pm – Assigned as PIO by on-scene incident commander
7:31pm – First Twitter post sent from scene
7:37pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
7:48pm – Outbound call attempt – unsuccessful (personal phone)
8:09pm – Outbound SMS attempt – unsuccessful (work phone)
I’ve omitted a few redundant attempts from the timeline above for brevity’s sake – but you get the gist.
8:38pm – Washington State Patrol district PIO provides my phone number to media via tweet
8:40pm – First incoming media call
12:03am (Friday) – Last incoming media call before WSDOT took lead as incident PIO.
Personal lessons learned:
- I don’t normally care for them, but in this situation I really wished I had a bluetooth earpiece for the phone.
- We (emergency management) have been telling people for some time now that even when the phone lines are overwhelmed, SMS might still work. I think we need to emphasize the “might” element. In this instance, both SMS and phone connectivity started working again in the immediate area within 90 minutes or so. But that’s a long time if it’s your only way to communicate.
Tomorrow, Marcus will be talking about social media during the response, specifically Twitter and a bit about virtual support teams (VOST).