August 14, 2018

Communication During a Crisis: Lessons from Golden’s Indian Gulch Fire

The Indian Gulch Fire just west of Golden wasn’t the first time that a local community relied on social media tools during a natural disaster, and it won’t be the last, but it was the first time here in Golden that the internet played such a key role in our communication and outreach efforts during a natural disaster. The fire, which started the morning of March 20, quickly grew into the most significant fire in the country, pulling in hundreds of firefighters, drawing a federal Type 1 Incident Management Team, and threatening hundreds of homes.

The Emergency Plan
The city had the benefit of a regularly updated emergency operations plan (and that had just been updated two months earlier), and a number of Jefferson County agencies, including Golden, had engaged in a large-scale multi-agency emergency operations exercise just one month prior. The plan, which was quickly pulled off the shelf and deployed as the circumstances of the fire became clear, relied primarily on a traditional communications model: the emergency operations team would compile and verify information about the fire, and they would provide it to our public information officer so that she could periodically brief the news media (with formal briefings and by posting written briefings on the city’s web site). The city would then rely largely on the media to then broadcast that information via television, radio, and print media (as well as the web sites associated with all of those). Because the fire was actually burning in unincorporated Jefferson County, outside the city limits, the county’s PIO ended up being the point person but the basic system was the same. Both Jeffco and Golden also added tweets to their outgoing communications toolbox, as well.

Expanding Our Reach
Councilor Bill Fisher and I then expanded that communications and outreach net. We started by posting much more frequent updates to our individual Facebook and Twitter accounts. We supplemented that information with periodic email updates to our newsletter lists. In my case, that was usually once a day late in the evening, which afforded me a chance to summarize the key information of the day for folks who hadn’t been able to keep up through other means and to offer some more background and detail. Bill and I independently (and then sometimes together) also traveled around town, stopping by the Golden Gate Canyon roadblock, the various staging areas, some of the areas that residents were congregating, and the Emergency Operations Center. We were able to learn more about what was happening on the ground, to hear what residents had learned and what they were concerned about, and to share information with all of those folks. We were posting periodically to our web sites as well.

On the whole it seemed to work really well. A very large number of folks expressed their gratitude for the communication efforts, often specifically referring to the email newsletter, Facebook, or Twitter. Similarly, all of the data I had on my Facebook posts, Tweets, my web site, and my email updates showed substantial visitor and reader increases, and I think the same was true for Bill as well. But we learned a lot along the way, and there are some things we would do differently next time.

Our Question to You
I’ve got some extended reflections below, but if you don’t have time to read all of that, you might still consider responding to this question: In terms of communication and outreach, what went well and what could we improve on next time? We are putting together a more formal survey so we can learn more about what information sources were most valuable and how folks used each of them, but in the meantime we’d welcome your thoughts.

Here are some of my more specific reflections and lessons learned:

  • I spent about half my time driving around and talking to folks and the other half at my computer. That’s not how I would have imagined spending my time during a fire, but it actually worked quite well. One key point: it really did take a lot of time to keep up on the computer, between tweets and Twitter messages, Facebook posts and responding to Facebook queries, blog posts, my newsletter, and responding other email. It also took a lot of time to gather information. If I had limited myself to just the formal news releases as information sources I would have saved a lot of time, but the information I was able to distribute would have been less useful.
  • Physically getting out and making the circuit ended up being critical. I learned a ton about what was actually happening on the ground by doing so, and talking face-to-face with constituents meant I was able to answer their questions and hear what they were most concerned about. Interestingly, the many emergency personnel I talked with every time we made the rounds were really grateful for the information as well. They were all extremely knowledgeable about their immediate tactical assignments, but they appreciated learning more about what was happening elsewhere, so it ended up being beneficial for everyone. In short, while most of the information flow was vertical (up and down the command hierarchies), Bill and I were essentially cutting across horizontally, which seemed to add a lot of value. It also meant we were able to spot some things that hadn’t been noticed. One example: the lack of a clear process for removing the evacuation alert. They would have realized they needed to lift it, but we caught it sooner precisely because we were traveling and communicating across silos.
  • Because the city staff (plus Jeffco and the feds when they showed up) was doing such a great job dealing with the fire itself, it meant that Bill and I could focus more on communication and on the needs of our community members. This enabled us to communicate with staff about issues that needed more attention or about information gaps that might not have been as important from the “protect people and homes” perspective but helped reduce the uncertainty among residents.
  • The conventional means of staying tuned in – TV, radio, and print media plus their web sites – were useful and helpful, and for some people they seemed to work well. But many people were really hungry for information (especially those whose homes were at risk), and the conventional channels were too infrequent and incomplete enough to meet their needs.
  • Many folks seemed primarily plugged in to just one or two information sources (e.g., Twitter and TV news). Most didn’t seem to be plugged into multiple social media channels. Pushing information out using all of those sources was time-consuming but I think it made a big difference in how many community members were able to stay plugged in. One lesson here for the city and for members of City Council is about how much effort is required to do this effectively.
  • Facebook and Twitter were the main tools for quick, frequent updates, and they both seemed to work really well. I noticed that a bunch of folks signed up for my tweets during the fire that were new to Twitter (or maybe had signed up but hadn’t used it before), which implied that they started using it because of the fire. Another reason both were useful: they were both very transparent, meaning that everyone could see what questions were asked and see the answers. That made them both a lot more efficient than email, where only the recipient of my email will see what I wrote to them. In addition, this made it much easier for Bill and I to listen to what community members were saying and asking, and that made it easier to figure out where the anxieties and information gaps were. These social media tools turned out to be great for both pushing information out and for hearing what was going on among residents.
  • Despite how useful Facebook and Twitter were, my email newsletter was a key supplement because many people in Golden aren’t using those social media tools. While they were probably getting some information through the conventional news media, I received a lot of favorable feedback about my more detailed email updates even though they were only once a day.
  • There was a huge amount of information flowing on Twitter, Facebook, and the web independent of the official news releases: reporters and especially just people who had information and stories they wanted to share. On the one hand, we needed to stay plugged in to catch any inaccurate information and to notice what rumors or fears were beginning to pick up steam so we could address them. On the other hand, it meant that key information about the fire, evacuation alerts, and so on was really amplified across the community. I know that Bill and I (as well as our city staff and Jeffco folks) were able to get important information to a lot of people, but the fact that everyone else was sharing and spreading meant that it got to even more people. Communicating really was a shared, community effort.
  • Bill and I occupied an interesting space. We weren’t official voices of the City of Golden, but we had enough credibility that our information was taken seriously. We were both diligent about checking our facts before hitting ‘send,’ and we always tried to make sure the info we posted was accurate. Nonetheless, for any future emergencies we’ll need to think about how to keep the accuracy level high without slowing things down. Ironically enough, the only error I’m aware of was the result of an error on one of the official news releases.
  • It took me a little while to figure out what Twitter hash tag people were using, although I think that was more about my not knowing Twitter all that well. Once I figured that out, Twitter worked great.
  • Although it wasn’t by design, Bill and I were generally able to tag team the effort, so at least one of us was able to push information out most of the time (plus the city and Jeffco ramped up their nontraditional efforts as well, which made a difference). In the future we may want to have a more specific strategy on this.

The punch line: communicating across such a wide range of tools required a great deal more effort than simply relying on the traditional news release-driven approaches, but my sense is that the effort was worthwhile. I certainly hope we don’t face anything like this again anytime soon, but no doubt Golden will periodically face crises like this and I believe we’ll want to use a wide range of strategies for communicating and listening. We’ll need to remain adaptable – who knows how long Facebook and Twitter will be the important tools – but I’m guessing that the basic idea of using a diverse toolbox will be important for a long time to come.

Bill and I welcome your thoughts and observations.

The Great Golden Business Tour: Maverick and Spot Bicycles

A few weeks back Steve Glueck and I visited two more of Golden’s bike manufacturers. Although they are entirely separate businesses, they share a building in north Golden. Maverick makes very high end mountain bikes and Spot makes comparably high quality belt-driven bikes. Way cool. On every outing Steve and head back shaking our heads in amazement that there are this many cool, highly-innovative businesses here in town doing so many cool, highly-innovative things.


These tubes will become bike frames.


Testing the belt through mud and grime.

Jacob’s Golden Update: 2010 Election Special Edition

I keep the electoral politics to a minimum on my blog and in my newsletter, but federal and state election outcomes can have a huge impact on Golden, so I’ll share my endorsements and recommendations for this 2010 election.

The ballots are out, by the way: the sooner you mail yours in the sooner it’s out of the way. Mailing your ballot in promptly should also mean that the political phone calls and door knocks drop off, since most campaigns are constantly updating their call and knock lists based on who’s already voted (so they don’t waste time bugging folks who have already sent in their ballot). However much you agree or disagree with my recommendations, be sure to vote!

Max Tyler, State House
Max is the small businessman who succeeded Gwyn Green in the state legislature when she retired a year ago. He has been a great advocate for renewable energy and for green jobs (he was the lead sponsor on a successful bill last year that will dramatically increase renewable energy production in Colorado and create 10,000 new renewable energy jobs), a strong opponent of the beltway, and a stalwart supporter of Golden and the Golden community. In addition to my endorsement, Max has the support of the Denver Post, Ed Perlmutter, Moe Keller, and many more.

Cheri Jahn, State Senate
Cheri is running to fill Moe Keller’s seat in the State Senate (Moe is term limited). She grew up in the Golden area and has been a steadfast Golden supporter on transportation and beltway issues. She’s also got a great track record from her time in the State House on issues that matter to me like jobs and conservation. I’ve seen her here in Golden often – a good sign that she cares enough about the community to show up – and I believe she’ll represent us well.

Ed Perlmutter, U.S. House of Representatives
Ed knows Golden and Jefferson County like no one else, he works harder than everyone else, and he is as focused on practical problem-solving as they get. He’s been a great champion for renewable energy, for NREL, and for financial reform. His position on the beltway is very reasonable: whatever happens needs to be done in a way that protects Golden. He and his staff are here in Golden all the time – at events, at Ed’s Government at the Grocery office hours, and at fundraisers for community organizations – and Ed and his staff have a reputation for being extremely responsive to constituents. I strongly endorse Ed Perlmutter.

Michael Bennet, U.S. Senate
Michael is one of the smartest, hardest-working elected representatives I know. After meeting him or seeing him speak, most people I know walk away impressed with his intelligence and his thoughtfulness. I like him in part because he brings a very different sort of perspective – a mix of both private sector and public sector experiences – to the table: he was very successful at rescuing failing businesses, he knows the challenges that municipalities face after having served as Mayor Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff, and he has a deep commitment to public education (including his tenure at the helm of Denver Public Schools). His opponent holds what I believe are very extreme views on some threshold issues, including opposing abortion even in the case of incest and rape. Bottom line: I think Michael Bennet is doing a really good job and that he’s got the potential to be a great Senator. I will be voting for him.

John Hickenlooper, Governor
John is an unusual politician: aside from shooting commercials while skydiving and showering with his clothes on, he is both a political moderate and a strong visionary on important issues like renewable energy and sustainability. He gets the critical importance of good jobs and a healthy business community, he’s been a tireless champion of transit and FasTracks, and he’s been an energetic supporter of K-12 and higher education. He has my support. John’s Lieutenant Governor running mate is Joseph Garcia.

Cary Kennedy, State Treasurer
Cary is incredibly intelligent, articulate, and capable. Her management of the state’s investments have resulted in positive gains and a continued strong credit rating despite a recession that hammered many state portfolios. She’s been a champion of government transparency and accountability (I borrowed the idea for Golden’s bi-annual Community Accountability Report last year from her own statewide version), including cutting edge tools for giving taxpayers access to state revenue and spending information. Cary has also been an ardent and successful advocate for K-12 education and higher education, and she is playing a lead role in tackling the state constitution’s fiscal dysfunctions, including a critical role in the passage of Referendum C.

Bob Wilson, RTD Board of Directors
RTD has a tough job ahead: manage the completion of the FasTracks system under challenging circumstances. I’m supporting Bob because of his experience with transit and transportation issues, his extensive engineering background, and his clear commitment to responsible transportation solutions. Bob’s opponent, a former 24-year member of the Arvada City Councilor, has been one of the most vocal supporteres of the beltway.

A few additional thoughts:
Pam Anderson is running for reelection as the Jefferson County Clerk, and seems to be doing a really good job.  Kathy Hartman is running for reelection as a Jefferson County Commissioner, and while I don’t agree with her on a lot of issues I think on the whole she is doing a solid job as well.  Bernie Buescher is currently the Secretary of State and has also done well with a very tough job.

Ballot Initiatives: Vote No on Everything

There are three issues on the ballot with huge implications for Golden and for the state: Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 (often called the Bad Three or the Ugly Three). There is broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats and among the business community, civic leaders, and community groups that these three measures would be lethal to Colorado’s economy. They would kill most state funding sources for repairing crumbling bridges and roads. They would overturn hundreds of local votes across the state to fund school districts, libraries, fire districts, and other local service providers. They would overturn the decision by Golden’s own voters to “de-Bruce” the city budget. They would cause a huge loss of revenue, forcing deep cuts in public safety, road maintenance, and other vital community services. And they basically eliminate every public financing mechanism in the state, making it near-impossible to construct community buildings like schools, fire stations, and water and wasterwater plants.

The other measures on the ballot range, in my view, from terrible to unimportant, and I’ll be voting no on all of them.

Jacob's Golden Update: 2010 Election Special Edition

I keep the electoral politics to a minimum on my blog and in my newsletter, but federal and state election outcomes can have a huge impact on Golden, so I’ll share my endorsements and recommendations for this 2010 election.

The ballots are out, by the way: the sooner you mail yours in the sooner it’s out of the way. Mailing your ballot in promptly should also mean that the political phone calls and door knocks drop off, since most campaigns are constantly updating their call and knock lists based on who’s already voted (so they don’t waste time bugging folks who have already sent in their ballot). However much you agree or disagree with my recommendations, be sure to vote!

Max Tyler, State House
Max is the small businessman who succeeded Gwyn Green in the state legislature when she retired a year ago. He has been a great advocate for renewable energy and for green jobs (he was the lead sponsor on a successful bill last year that will dramatically increase renewable energy production in Colorado and create 10,000 new renewable energy jobs), a strong opponent of the beltway, and a stalwart supporter of Golden and the Golden community. In addition to my endorsement, Max has the support of the Denver Post, Ed Perlmutter, Moe Keller, and many more.

Cheri Jahn, State Senate
Cheri is running to fill Moe Keller’s seat in the State Senate (Moe is term limited). She grew up in the Golden area and has been a steadfast Golden supporter on transportation and beltway issues. She’s also got a great track record from her time in the State House on issues that matter to me like jobs and conservation. I’ve seen her here in Golden often – a good sign that she cares enough about the community to show up – and I believe she’ll represent us well.

Ed Perlmutter, U.S. House of Representatives
Ed knows Golden and Jefferson County like no one else, he works harder than everyone else, and he is as focused on practical problem-solving as they get. He’s been a great champion for renewable energy, for NREL, and for financial reform. His position on the beltway is very reasonable: whatever happens needs to be done in a way that protects Golden. He and his staff are here in Golden all the time – at events, at Ed’s Government at the Grocery office hours, and at fundraisers for community organizations – and Ed and his staff have a reputation for being extremely responsive to constituents. I strongly endorse Ed Perlmutter.

Michael Bennet, U.S. Senate
Michael is one of the smartest, hardest-working elected representatives I know. After meeting him or seeing him speak, most people I know walk away impressed with his intelligence and his thoughtfulness. I like him in part because he brings a very different sort of perspective – a mix of both private sector and public sector experiences – to the table: he was very successful at rescuing failing businesses, he knows the challenges that municipalities face after having served as Mayor Hickenlooper’s Chief of Staff, and he has a deep commitment to public education (including his tenure at the helm of Denver Public Schools). His opponent holds what I believe are very extreme views on some threshold issues, including opposing abortion even in the case of incest and rape. Bottom line: I think Michael Bennet is doing a really good job and that he’s got the potential to be a great Senator. I will be voting for him.

John Hickenlooper, Governor
John is an unusual politician: aside from shooting commercials while skydiving and showering with his clothes on, he is both a political moderate and a strong visionary on important issues like renewable energy and sustainability. He gets the critical importance of good jobs and a healthy business community, he’s been a tireless champion of transit and FasTracks, and he’s been an energetic supporter of K-12 and higher education. He has my support. John’s Lieutenant Governor running mate is Joseph Garcia.

Cary Kennedy, State Treasurer
Cary is incredibly intelligent, articulate, and capable. Her management of the state’s investments have resulted in positive gains and a continued strong credit rating despite a recession that hammered many state portfolios. She’s been a champion of government transparency and accountability (I borrowed the idea for Golden’s bi-annual Community Accountability Report last year from her own statewide version), including cutting edge tools for giving taxpayers access to state revenue and spending information. Cary has also been an ardent and successful advocate for K-12 education and higher education, and she is playing a lead role in tackling the state constitution’s fiscal dysfunctions, including a critical role in the passage of Referendum C.

Bob Wilson, RTD Board of Directors
RTD has a tough job ahead: manage the completion of the FasTracks system under challenging circumstances. I’m supporting Bob because of his experience with transit and transportation issues, his extensive engineering background, and his clear commitment to responsible transportation solutions. Bob’s opponent, a former 24-year member of the Arvada City Councilor, has been one of the most vocal supporteres of the beltway.

A few additional thoughts:
Pam Anderson is running for reelection as the Jefferson County Clerk, and seems to be doing a really good job.  Kathy Hartman is running for reelection as a Jefferson County Commissioner, and while I don’t agree with her on a lot of issues I think on the whole she is doing a solid job as well.  Bernie Buescher is currently the Secretary of State and has also done well with a very tough job.

Ballot Initiatives: Vote No on Everything

There are three issues on the ballot with huge implications for Golden and for the state: Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101 (often called the Bad Three or the Ugly Three). There is broad agreement among Republicans and Democrats and among the business community, civic leaders, and community groups that these three measures would be lethal to Colorado’s economy. They would kill most state funding sources for repairing crumbling bridges and roads. They would overturn hundreds of local votes across the state to fund school districts, libraries, fire districts, and other local service providers. They would overturn the decision by Golden’s own voters to “de-Bruce” the city budget. They would cause a huge loss of revenue, forcing deep cuts in public safety, road maintenance, and other vital community services. And they basically eliminate every public financing mechanism in the state, making it near-impossible to construct community buildings like schools, fire stations, and water and wasterwater plants.

The other measures on the ballot range, in my view, from terrible to unimportant, and I’ll be voting no on all of them.

Jacob’s Golden Update: Mountain Bike Skills Park and Other News

Jacob’s Golden Update: March 16, 2010

1. Mountain Bike Skills Park Gets the Green Light
2. Golden Vision Summit: March 23
3. Jackson Street Corridor: Additional Refinements
4. City Council Supports Renewable Energy Bills
5. 2010 Census Kicks Off
6. Shelton Elementary’s Big Heart
7. i-Neighbors: Beverly Heights
8. Jacob’s Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, April 8
[Read more…]

Jacob's Golden Update: Mountain Bike Skills Park and Other News

Jacob’s Golden Update: March 16, 2010

1. Mountain Bike Skills Park Gets the Green Light
2. Golden Vision Summit: March 23
3. Jackson Street Corridor: Additional Refinements
4. City Council Supports Renewable Energy Bills
5. 2010 Census Kicks Off
6. Shelton Elementary’s Big Heart
7. i-Neighbors: Beverly Heights
8. Jacob’s Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, April 8
[Read more…]

Jacob’s Golden Update: Jackson Street Corridor Improvements and Other News

Jacob’s Golden Update: February 23, 2010

1. Jackson Street Corridor Pedestrian and Bike Improvements
2. Bachman Open Space Purchase Moves Forward
3. Improving Protections for Mobile Home Park Residents
4. Beltway Briefing
5. CSM Projects Gain City Council Approval
6. TIGER Grants Announced
7. Golden’s New Community Bus: Open House on March 2
8. Jacob’s Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, February 25
[Read more…]

Jacob's Golden Update: City Council Adopts Permit Parking and Other News

Jacob’s Golden Update: January 29, 2010

1. DRCOG Approves “Jefferson Parkway” Toll Highway Proposal
2. City Council Adopts Permit Parking Near CSM
3. Moving Forward With Other CSM Agreements
4. Community Bus Neighborhood Meetings
5. Planning Commission Openings: Deadline February 18
6. Talking Trash: Trash Hauling and Recycling
7. Golden Public Works Earns Top Honors
8. Smith for Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, February 4

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[Read more…]

Jacob’s Golden Update: City Council Adopts Permit Parking and Other News

Jacob’s Golden Update: January 29, 2010

1. DRCOG Approves “Jefferson Parkway” Toll Highway Proposal
2. City Council Adopts Permit Parking Near CSM
3. Moving Forward With Other CSM Agreements
4. Community Bus Neighborhood Meetings
5. Planning Commission Openings: Deadline February 18
6. Talking Trash: Trash Hauling and Recycling
7. Golden Public Works Earns Top Honors
8. Smith for Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, February 4

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** Follow me on Twitter (username: jacobzsmith). **

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Jacob's Golden Update: Critical Beltway Vote on January 20

Jacob’s Golden Update: January 12, 2010

1. New City Council to be Sworn in on Thursday
2. Critical Beltway Vote on January 20
3. Mayor’s Awards for Excellence: 2009
4. Golden Community Bus Feasibility Study
5. Senator Keller Announces Town Hall Meeting Schedule
6. Permit Parking Near Golden High School and Colorado School of Mines
7. New Beverly Heights Email List
8. Smith for Golden Blog Roundup
9. Other Upcoming Events
10. Next City Council Meeting: Thursday, January 14

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[Read more…]