KPBS Fire Coverage

KPBS in San Diego earned distinction for outstanding crisis response to the major wildfires in October 2007. While radio coverage was outstanding, so was the online coverage. In fact, Google created a short video to show how KPBS resorted to Google’s free mapping tool.

  1. The Crisis
  2. The Response
  3. The Plan
  4. The New Media
  5. The Future

The Crisis

  • Sunday, October 21, 2007: Wildfires are reported in rural areas of San Diego County.
  • By 11:15 a.m., San Diego County activated its Emergency Operations Center. There was no activation of the Emergency Alert System.
  • Eventually, eight different wildfires would burn throughout the county, driven by high-speed winds.
  • One week later:
    • The fires scorched more than 300,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,500 homes, and contributed to 115 casualties, including 16 deaths.
    • Five hundred thousand people were evacuated from their homes — one of the largest displacements in U.S. history.

The Response

  • By 2:00 p.m. Sunday, KPBS News Director called for a Level 3 Emergency Response — all editors, reporters and producers notified.
  • At 3:00 p.m., KPBS began broadcast bulletins.
  • By 5:00 p.m., KPBS News Director called for Level 5 Response — all hands on deck for continuous, around-the-clock coverage.
  • Sunday to Wednesday: KPBS Radio broadcast 80 hours of non-stop coverage.
    • On Tuesday at 5:30 a.m., KPBS was knocked off the air when fire burned power lines to transmitter on Mt. San Miguel.
    • Local alternative rock station 94.9 FM agreed to carry KPBS audio from 8:30 a.m. Tuesday to 9:00 a.m. Wednesday.
    • KPBS engineers restored 89.5 FM transmission using a temporary transmitter constructed on the station roof. Mt San Miguel wasn’t restored until Friday, when a generator was installed.
  • KPBS New Media department provided 100 hours of near-continuous online coverage.
  • Unprecedented cooperation from KPBS, NPR, KQED, KPCC, 94.9, Google, SDSU.

The Plan

  • KPBS developed its Crisis Coverage Plan in 2001, after poor response to a local school shooting.
  • Plan was created by a Task Force representing different areas of the station — Radio News, Radio Talk Show, TV, Operations, Engineering.
  • The plan is centered on a system of crisis levels:
    • Level 1: Isolated situation which affects few people — no radio format change; post on web
    • Level 2: Isolated but severe situation which affects more people — radio adds newscasts; post on web
    • Level 3: Serious situation with potential for escalation with wide impact — radio breaks format for special reports; post on web
    • Level 4: Severe situation with wide impact where “event” has an ending — radio and web provide rolling coverage for determined time period
    • Level 5: Disaster with extreme impact — radio and web provide rolling coverage for extended time
  • KPBS used the plan during the 2003 wild fires. (25 hours of extended coverage).
  • Plan was fine-tuned by focusing on staffing, skills, New Media.

The New Media

  • Within hours, KPBS.org and radio web stream unable to handle user surge
  • Remedies by creating stripped down, single HTML page and updated manually
  • Sent people away from our site to things we created elsewhere:
    • Google Map: Searchable, embeddable, demand for detail
    • Twitter: Mobile access, short bursts, networking
    • Flickr: KPBS photos, community photos
  • Proprietary hosting limits reach. Go where users gather.
  • Information Overload — Parse updates to post across platforms
    • Map team, Twitter team, Wiki to organize staff
    • Support: Google, SDSU, Public Media Colleagues, Volunteers from WNYC, KPCC, KQED, NPR

The Future

  • Refining Crisis Coverage Plan:
    • Implement all-staff survey to identify skills and train staff.
    • Create staffing spread sheet (EP, producers, hosts, anchors, editors, researchers, etc) for better workflow during crisis.
    • Create “emergency show clock” for radio broadcast.
    • Create better internal communication systems for staff during crisis.
    • Seek funding for equipment needs.
    • Seek partnerships with local media entities.
    • Establish KPBS as “first responder” in order to get more access to information from city and county agencies.
    • Participate in various county-wide emergency scenarios.
    • NPR Mobile collaboration makes local news more accessible m.kpbs.npr.org
    • Google Collaborative Map released after trial by fire.
    • Reduce website inefficiency, back to basics “usability.”
    • Establish a presence in users’ web circles.