05:17 AM

Quick response key to California wildfire comms

Newsroom plays key role in crisis situation.

When a fire forced California State University San Marcos to cancel classes and delay commencement, PressPage helped communicators keep the campus informed. 

Whether they work in tornado alley or an earthquake zone, virtually every communications team has a crisis plan to prepare for the worst.

But are you prepared to speedily post updates to your website and social media when trees are falling or flames crown the hills nearby?

At California State University San Marcos, not only firefighters but also communicators formed a quick response team when a wildfire singed the campus north of San Diego in May.

As the university evacuated students and staff, canceled classes and finals, and postponed commencement, a four-person communications team kept stakeholders informed with the help of social media and PressPage's innovative newsroom technology.

"It was very fast-paced, but we all felt like we knew what our job was and how to do it," says Cathy Baur, associate vice president for communications. 

 The college, which has 11,300 students, was threatened by one of nine infernos to erupt throughout San Diego County the week of May 12. Even as communicators updated the website and put out wildfires online, the campus served as the command post and staging area for the 800 firefighters and police officers who responded. The center also offered shower facilities and a sleeping area for emergency personnel.

University communications were embedded in the emergency operations center, keeping them close to sources in the police, risk management, health and safety teams, and campus administrators.

CSUSM communicators accelerated their response with PressPage, a Ragan partner that supplies search-engine-optimized social media newsroom technology.

"When the fires broke out, we knew it would be a valuable resource for communicating out," Baur says.

Evacuating the campus

It was a chaotic week. Roads were crowded as the university and its neighbors evacuated. The next day, when the winds changed direction, the college considered evacuating the command center itself.

"As folks were leaving campus, you could see the hills behind the school were on fire," Baur says.

Communications stayed on top of things with rapid-fire messaging through the website new center and social media. PressPage made all the difference in easily updating the website and integrating social media, Baur says.

"At the beginning of the evacuation and fire, we were providing updates every three to five minutes," she says. "We understood the importance of being able to provide the information that we could and continuing to fill in the details as the situation evolved."

Public Information Officers Margaret Chantung and Christine Vaughan and Social Media Specialist Katie Chappell also worked from the center and from home. As Chappell monitored the social media juggernaut, the others answered media questions and updated information on the website.

Chappell monitored social media for questions and rumors, offering insight into what questions students and others were asking in social media. The team could then adjust its communications to address those issues. 

Tweets and B-roll

From May 14-19, CSUSM communicators wrote 24 posts and sent out more than 200 tweets and replies, Chappell says.

The university had been using PressPage for only two months, but the platform's advantages were obvious, team members say. Crises bring accelerated demands from the press, but Vaughan says she was able to update the website from home using an iPad. The college offered photographs, B-roll, and other information that the media could grab.

"The big benefit was how quickly we were able to get it up and how easy it was to access PressPage," Vaughan says.

Evacuated students were asking when they could clear out their rooms. Others wanted to know about air quality or textbook buybacks. Communicators offered frequent updates to keep people informed.

Damage to the college's 304-acre campus was minimal, CSUSM reported. Flames burned through chaparral on the southern perimeter and came close to the central plant, but physical damage was limited to smoke, a power outage, and a ruptured coil that caused flooding in three rooms.

The communications went on after the fire. The college answered questions about graduation—rescheduled for May 24 and 25—and used social media to inform the students about the new dates. 

 Communicators also posted a statement by President Karen Haynes, who praised the first responders who battled a fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres and destroyed 40 structures.

"We are especially grateful for the eight military Sea Hawk helicopters and the Cal Fire DC 10 Air Tank that flew over our hills making drops of flame retardant and water; and to the firefighters and police from so many other districts who came together to fight these fires," she wrote. "Their efforts ensured the safety of our campus and saved so many homes and businesses in our surrounding community."

It appears that at least some students and others were grateful. One Twitter user tweeted CSUSM, "thank you to who ever [sic] runs this account. You've made this so much easier." 

This was written by Russell Working, a staff writer at Ragan Communications, and originally appeared on


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