Washington Smoke Blogspot: A Truly Collaborative Effort

Post by: Kim Stephens

Smoke from the September 2012 fires in central Washington State continues to cause huge air quality concerns for local residents.  Last week public health officials, according to the Seattle Times,  went so far as to call conditions  “…worse than in the days after Mount St. Helens erupted and the region was coated with ash.”  Not surprisingly, this has manifested in very real public health problems and has led to hospitalizations and school closures.

“We have never had anything like this happen in Chelan or Douglas County and maybe never in the state of Washington,” said Mary Small, public-information officer for the Chelan-Douglas Health District. (Source: http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2019205184_wenatchee20m.html)

As with any crisis, citizens want to know what is happening and how it impacts them. But in this era of information overload, feast is sometimes more of an issue than famine. This is especially true now that every  locality, State and Federal agency has a website, a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, etc.

Of course the Joint Information System is supposed to address this problem. In theory the JIS is designed to “integrate incident information and public affairs into a cohesive organization designed to provide consistent, coordinated, accurate, accessible, timely, and complete information during crisis or incident operations.” But, we all know this doesn’t always happen as seamlessly as the definition implies.

Washington Smoke Blog

The Washington Smoke Information blog, however, provides a great example of what a cohesive information  system can and does look like. According to the USDA’s Forest Service website, the blog combines information from numerous agencies including Washington State Department of Ecology, Washington State Department of Health, Washington tribes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service and various Washington county health departments.

“This website [blog] is a big step forward in providing the public with one-stop information that will help them protect their health,” said Deputy Regional Forester Maureen Hyzer. “We recognize that smoke from wildfires is a big concern for the public. This site will help them get information quickly about the air quality where they live.”

VOST

Of course a website or a blog doesn’t coordinate information, people do. One interesting aspect of this blog is that, according to the USDA-FS website, it was put up with the assistance of  “a volunteer web group.” The volunteer-web-group is actually a Virtual Operations Support Team or VOST (see definition in the text box).

The Forest Service has been making use of VOSTs mostly due to the promotion and deployment of the concept by Kris Eriksen, the Public Information Officer (PIO) for the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) Portland Team (a Type I Incident Management team). Ms. Eriksen has utilized VOSTs since 2011 to support social media and digital communications on numerous fires. The effort was documented by researchers during the 2011 Oregon, Shadow Lake Fire (read that document here.)

Who are these volunteers? Participants in this VOST effort include active emergency mangers who work during their off hours, people who have technical skills and an interest in emergency management, and even some regional forest service employees. Most have worked on previous VOST efforts.

Tools for Organization--With each VOST activation Ms. Eriksen and the team make use of Skype chat rooms and Google Docs to coordinate their efforts. Both communication and collaboration tools are seen as vital to the success of any deployment. The skype platform allows information to be relayed from the official organization via Ms. Eriksen to the VOST members in a text format: members can simply read the stream in order to determine what has transpired in previous communications and/or shifts. They also use the tool to discuss issues and receive direction in real-time. (I was given access and permission to read through the chat log.)

The Blog

In order to ensure citizens can quickly find the information they need, the Washington Smoke blog was designed–as stated above–as a one-stop shop. How do the volunteers fit in? It should be emphasized that VOST members are not involved in any of the following: decisions about what is posted; deciding if air quality is good versus hazardous; the wording on a press release or even the titles of the categories on the blog. They are, however, integral to the effort to pull content generated by official sources to the blog and populate the site with links and data from those sources as directed by the team leader.

Google Crisis Response

When citizens link to the blog site the first thing they will see is a prominently placed Google map. This map has multiple layers of data including: air quality–current conditions; air quality–tomorrow’s forecast; schools affected by the smoke; public alerts; Active Fire Perimeters; Inciweb (Incident Information System) fires; US Radar (Precipitation); and Cloud Imagery.

The Google Crisis Response Team worked very closely with Ms. Eriksen and the VOST  on this effort to provide a map that would help meet information needs of the local citizens.   Animation layers were added based on data available through actively participating organizations such as the Washington State Department of Ecology and the US EPA–just to name two. (I understand that getting the data into compatible formats was a little bit of a challenge.)  Although each organization has their own website to provide agency-specific content (see–Air Now a site that has Air quality information displayed on a map) , the Google map is the only place to find layered data: for instance, you can find schools within the hazardous air quality boundary.

Other information available on the site:

  • A map that is hyperlinked to National Weather Service real-time updates (labeled: Watches, Warnings and Advisories–the grey color indicates an air quality alert);
  • Daily updates of air quality from each county with the measures Good, Unhealthy, Moderate, Unhealthy for senstive groups and Hazardous;
  • Daily updates or press releases from any organization involved in the response. Yesterday, for example, there were posts such as:
  • A list of all of the hyperlinks to pertinent agencies, organizations and tools separated by categories including: County, State, Federal, Webcams, and Fire Information (which includes such sites as Inciweb and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center);
  • FAQs;
  • Other resources;
  • Information in Spanish

According to the site-visit counter the page has received over 25,500 hits. That is a great success. I look forward to the after action report from this effort. I think there will be many great take-aways for other communities and agencies to learn from–for instance, the importance of sharing data in open formats. What do you want to know more about?

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