What to Do When Your World Is on Fire: A Lesson in Crisis Management

Podcast August 01, 2019

In 2018, Shasta College became one of the emergency shelters during the devastating Carr Fire. The Carr Fire burned more than 225,000 acres and became the sixth-most destructive fire in California, as well as the seventh-largest wildfire recorded in modern California history. In this discussion, president of Interact Communications, Cheryl Broom, and director of marketing and outreach at Shasta College, Peter Griggs, reflect on the disaster and lessons learned in crisis management.


Cheryl Broom: (00:29)
Welcome to the Community College Marketing MasterClass, a podcast dedicated entirely to discussing topics important to community college professionals. The last few podcasts have focused mainly on marketing and digital marketing trends. And today I want to focus on a key part of the Community College Public Information Office job: responding to and managing communications in times of crises. And sometimes this management goes beyond communicating messages to actually hands-on managing crises. That brings me to today’s guest, Peter Griggs. Peter is the marketing and outreach director at Shasta College, which serves Shasta, Trinity, and Tehama counties in northern California. Shasta College is located in rural, far northern California, serving nearly 14,000 students. The district has two campuses in Redding and campuses in Tehama, Weaverville, and Burney, in addition to its many online courses and programs. You may have heard of Shasta College as it served as one of the emergency shelters during the devastating Carr Fire in 2018. The Carr Fire burned more than 225,000 acres and became the sixth most destructive fire in California history, as well as the seventh-largest wildfire recorded in modern California history. Peter as his role as the Shasta College PIO was in the center of the fire recovery services. Peter was front and center as his campus became an emergency shelter. Many of the faculty, staff, and students at the college were personally affected by the fires. Peter had to not only deal with the closure of his college, but with the emotional and physical impact the fires had on his community. Peter, thanks for joining us today.

Peter Griggs: (01:01)
Cheryl, thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Cheryl Broom: (02:10)
Those listening to this podcast are from all over the country and may not be entirely familiar with the Carr Fire. Will you tell us a little bit about what happened?

Peter Griggs: (02:17)
Certainly. So before the college became an emergency evacuation center, the Carr Fire started up by one of our lakes, Whiskeytown Lake, and we had some information coming to us for the first couple of days. Okay. This has started Wow, it’s starting to grow and we were watching it. The president and his staff were watching it very closely. As it became the bigger fire that we’ve all grown to understand, we started to get reports from Cal Fire and from the county to standby, that we may be activated and so the Carr Fire really became something much larger than we had anticipated. Very much like a snowball rolling down a hill. It started small and very quickly grew in size, so we had a little bit of time ahead of it. Not very much, but enough so that the president was able to warn us as PIO’s. Okay. We need you to start prepping for any type of messaging that if we were activated.

Cheryl Broom: (03:21)
And when the fire was going, were classes in session were students on campus?

Peter Griggs: (03:25)
Right. Great question. We were still in our summer session and we were just finishing up. So we probably had about a week, right. So if you want to think of perhaps the finals week. But it happened, if any fire can happen at a good time or any natural disaster, this would possibly be the best time for our campus in the sense that we did not have an active semester right in the middle. Right. So we were not in the middle of fall or spring semester. It was right at the end of summer semester.

Cheryl Broom: (03:53)
There were fires in San Diego County a couple of years ago when I was at MiraCosta College and Palomar College, which is in San Marcos, had to shut down and postponed commencement. So unlike your campus, that actually ended up serving as an emergency zone as a shelter,

Peter Griggs: (04:12)
Evacuation center, yes.

Cheryl Broom: (04:12)
Yeah that, that campus actually had to shut down commencement and reschedule everything. So you’re never prepared for what could happen and when it can happen.

Peter Griggs: (04:20)
You’re not. And we still did have classes that were in session that we did have to reschedule. But again, luckily we were right at the end. And so our vice president of instruction was able to make those adjustments and we were able to accommodate those students.

Cheryl Broom: (04:34)
So when your campus was designated as a fire, what is the proper term for, recovery?

Peter Griggs: (04:40)
We were an evacuation center.

Cheryl Broom: (04:41)
An evacuation center. What did that look like?

Peter Griggs: (04:44)
Well, again, because the fire, and that’s what I think is so important to understand, is that the fire continued to grow. It was not something that we simply looked at face value and said, okay, great, we’ll be an evacuation center. We’ll get a few people in. It really did snowball on us. And so what it looked like initially is we had gone home for the evening, we had laid out some of our messaging just in case, and I got a call probably around six, seven o’clock that evening from the president, Hey, we’re being activated. And when you’re activated, Red Cross basically comes in, they become the body, right? That really brings people in. They lay out the cots, they look at your facility, how is this going to be laid out? How are we going to serve these people? And so I went onto campus, our EOC, our emergency operations center for the campus had already been activated. So the president was there, his team was there, and we really started to go into the mode of, okay, let’s get the messaging out, how many people are coming in, let’s talk to Red Cross. Initially, we did not anticipate that large of an influx of people and by that I mean Red Cross would come in and said, okay, so we’re going to take your cafeteria and we’re going to make that our staging area, right?

Peter Griggs: (05:57)
That’s going to be our principal area where we’re going to house people and we’re anticipating this many cots. And they had those there and so they were laying them out, getting them all set up, cots, blankets, pillows, things of that nature. And we’ll make your gymnasium your second staging area if we need it. Now you have to understand this is Redding and it’s the middle of what we would call summer. Redding is the second sunniest place in the United States and we can rival Death Valley in our heat at times. So we oftentimes during the summer can get up 115 degrees, you know, without blinking an eye. So we have, now smoke, we’ve got heat and all of a sudden we start to get a lot of people coming into our campus. And so that was the initial as the fire started to grow and people who are familiar with the Carr Fire, one of the interesting parts to it is that we had a fire tornado and listened to Cal Fire, listened to some of the fire technology folks who really dealt with this fire and they’d never seen this before.

Peter Griggs: (06:58)
And this is if you can imagine a tornado built a fire and they have pictures and aerial footage of just that. And it is one of the most, I guess scary visual sights for me that I had ever seen. And as that blossomed, as this fire grew, of course, we had even more people coming into our facility. Initially, we were not the first evacuation center. One of the high schools was. And they quickly figured out that that was too close to the burn zone and the fire approaching the city. And so they moved that facility into our college and so that first night we started to very quickly fill up our student cafeteria. We also had three assisted care homes that came to the college. And so just those, it was a question of, okay and a shout out to our facility staff, our security staff. My role was was minor, I mean very minor compared to what these individuals and these professionals really went through. I joke to this day that for the entirety of our term as an evacuation center, I don’t think our facilities director actually slept or our security team and they were just, they were absolutely amazing. They were everywhere at once and if you needed something to have happen, hey, I need these doors open and I need, you know, electricity on in here, they made it happen.

Cheryl Broom: (08:26)
I remember watching the fire on the news and seeing the college listed as an evacuation center and thinking, man, how can I help Peter? What can I do? Can I think I even texted or emailed and was like, is there something we could do? Can we write a press release? How do you prepare and what kind of help do you need when something like that happens?

Peter Griggs: (08:48)
And that’s a great question. How do you prepare? You know, having listened to other PIOs around the state and the nation and some of the disasters they’ve run into both crisis of confidence, national disasters, you know, active shooters, et cetera. Each one has been different. And that’s what every PIO that I’ve talked to has said, even though there are some consistencies in what we can lay out when you have something like that happen, the preparation is really more your training and how you’re going to adapt in the situation. And I would have to agree. So we were very fortunate. Again, our security team, our security director is probably one of the best I’ve ever worked with. And right before this, we had gone through a FEMA training on what would we do in the case of an event. And so we really had a process and that’s why I said so the president was already prepped.

Peter Griggs: (09:40)
We had already been given notice, Hey, you may be activated. We immediately went into, okay, let’s get the EOC started. Ramped up, get our communication prepared. And so we did just that. So that initial hour or two? Wow we’re great, we’ve got this, we can put it out there and then you take a deep breath and you realize as this happened, how it started to grow. And from there, how do you prepare? You really can’t. You adapt on the fly. And a lot of what I experienced during that week’s time was simply dealing with the crisis as it unfolded. Yes, I got calls, I got texts and yes you, you know, thank you for that. I was so immersed in dealing in the moment that it was hard for me to pause and again, this would be a takeaway I would tell other viewers, you need to pause now.

Peter Griggs: (10:32)
You need to stop and think, what plans do I have in place? What are my resources? What are the tools that I need? Who would I call? And call those people. Even if it’s one person who knows your network, who you can simply say to, I don’t know what I need, but I need you here. Get them there. Or if they can work remotely, great. Oftentimes I wasn’t able to communicate out what I needed quickly enough. It was simply I need to do this and I need to get it done now. And perhaps that was a problem on my part of delegation, but there was so much communication that had to happen in the moment that it was easier for me to simply make that jump and make it happen.

Cheryl Broom: (11:12)
And what kind of messages were you sending out that week? What were you having to notify people of?

Peter Griggs: (11:23)
You know, we did everything from traditional press releases, trying to notify people specifically about the college, obviously. A lot of the questions centered around are you still open? And so we talk about our two staging areas, both our cafeteria and our gymnasium. As this fire grew, we opened up our farm. We’re one of the community colleges that we’re very fortunate to have a farm. And our farm team, again was amazing. Those students came in, volunteered their time. All the staff at Shasta College stood up and asked to come in, volunteered to come in. And that was instrumental. You know, you don’t think about all the things that have to happen when you have that many people coming into your facility. But something as simple as we would open up the showers in the gym so that we can rotate people through and get these folks the basic needs that they had to have. Well you have to have towels running and cleaning going and people watching the facility and helping manage just the logistics.

Peter Griggs: (12:17)
We had staff all there helping and doing that as some of these people, a lot of those people, they had been evacuated themselves. You know their houses were in jeopardy or in some cases their houses had been burned. So really a shout out to our Shasta college community that really stepped up. Sorry, back to your question, what were some of the messages? So one of the big messages we came, are you still open? And for our community, they had nowhere else to turn. They didn’t know what was going on because this happened so quickly for them. So they really look to Shasta College as kind of that base. Where and I go to home? And some of them simply needed to come in, get that hot meal, get that point of reference, call out, find family, find friends and launch from there. So we were continuing to message, yes, we’re open.

Peter Griggs: (13:05)
Red Cross tells you when you close, by the way, we don’t tell you. And so we were constantly communicating with Red Cross, okay, how many more beds? What else do we have to open up? And we opened up the memorial stadium. So our football stadium, we had folks out there, we had our farm for people who were affected because we are rural. People brought in animals, cats, dogs, turtles. We had just about everything there at any given time. And so we were able to open up a farm, convey that messaging, yes, we’re taking animals. Here’s how you need to do that. Here’s the process that you need to initiate.

Cheryl Broom: (13:43)
And was there a lot of media coverage? Did you have to talk a lot to the media?

Peter Griggs: (13:47)
Yes. And you know that was again, it was happening so quickly. I was always trying to go to my president, go to my vice president, whoever was in charge of the EOC at the time or our spokesperson saying, okay, I’ve got this reporter, can you talk to this person? And initially, you can set those up. But it became so much, I mean we would have, oh gosh, 10 news teams on campus at any one time wandering around. And so you cannot possibly put your VP or your president in front of each one of those and you shouldn’t. Right? You’re, one of your roles is to protect and promote the institution. In this context, it’s very much your president. My president, my VP’s were busy dealing with the situation and so like VP basically turned to me at one point and simply said, it’s you, you need to be the face, go out and do this. Realistically, I would be the one walking around and at this point most of the media, and we had a lot of out of town media coming onto the campus. We had international media that came on. We had Nightline, we had the BBC. I actually FaceTimed at one point over to England, which was different. That was very unique. So yes, we had a wide variety of media that were coming on asking for interviews. A lot of those interviews were quick 30-second shotgun type. Again, the questions are you still open? What are you seeing? What are you in need of? And so we were handling a lot of those types of media inquiries.

Cheryl Broom: (15:20)
It’s fascinating. I mean, it’s amazing to me when you describe it, it’s like a pop-up city.

Peter Griggs: (15:24)
Oh, it was very much so. And again, that’s where I cannot say enough about our security team and our facilities team because really within a very small amount of time, within hours they activated and initiated everything that a minor city would need to have to manage that. Yeah, it was, uh, a team effort.

Cheryl Broom: (15:46)
Well, I think it also speaks to how important it is for the PIO to be part of the emergency management team and to be in the response center to be able to do those interviews and communicate those messages. You have to be in the center of everything that’s going on in order to communicate what’s happening in a factual, effective way.

Peter Griggs: (16:05)
You do and you know if there’s one tool that I can encourage all of the PIOs out there to look at right now is grab your cell phone and take one good look at it because it will become your most trusted and most valued piece of equipment. So you know, if you, if you talk about lessons learned after this event, I actually went over to my carrier and it doesn’t need to be the latest and greatest, but it should be at least a version, you know, away from being the top one. You need to have plenty of bandwidth in it. So you need to, you know, maximize the amount of memory you have because you will be taking a lot of video. You will be taking audio notes, you’ll be taking photos. I would post directly from my phone. You know, we used a variety of different technologies, but I was the one who was wandering out if we had vendors who would come in and donate food for the EOC team.

Peter Griggs: (16:59)
And so you want to do a shout out to them and it just has to be quick. So you would sit there, you’d grab them and say, Hey, as you’re taking things in, can you pause for a second? Give me a ten-second. Hi, this is Peter from Mary’s Pizza Shack and we’re just here supporting our friends at Shasta College. Boom. Done. Post that on your Facebook channel. We had a gentleman come up from a ranch in central California and he drove up with his barbecue rig and a whole trailer of tri-tips. Parked right on our quad and cooked tri-tips for every survivor, our guests at the college. You know, it’s moments like those that you simply, you’re in the moment, you don’t have time to go back and grab your DSLR. And I’m a photographer, right? You want those great pictures, but you have to grab what you have at the moment that you have it. So really get to know your cell phone. Have in that cell phone, all of the cell numbers. I have my president cell phone number on this, you know, your VPs, your head of security, your facilities manager. Because we were in constant communication.

Cheryl Broom: (18:02)
Really, really good tip. I mean that’s not something that you would necessarily find in a manual for preparing yourself for disaster. But it is so true. I mean that becomes your main source of communication.

Peter Griggs: (18:14)
It really did. You know, having that, I would not be in the EOC sitting at my desk writing press releases. So if you envision that being a role for this particular event, I should, I should preface it. That wasn’t quite how it worked out for me. Yes, I would sit at my desk. The days were very long. I really don’t know how many hours I would spend in a day. But you know, I had my wife actually bring me my clothes at one point to change and be fresh and ready for the next day. So as I was going through it, I would oftentimes write the press release, check in with my EOC. But then I was out, I would be coordinating with Red Cross, Salvation Army because they were taking in donations and it became almost a, okay, how are we managing this? What is the messaging that I need to send out?

Peter Griggs: (19:04)
Because people are asking me on our social media, how do I donate? How do I give? The outpouring of people who wanted to help was really heartwarming. It was incredible. Right? But as grateful as you are, you’re having semi-trucks coming to your facility, dumping off a lot of great donations, and you have to manage that. And so you’re coordinating with your EOC and say, well, what’s my messaging? What do you want me to say about, hey, we need pillows, we need ice, we need water, we need mental health workers. Okay, wait a minute now we don’t need this. Now we can only take new items. Now we can’t take used items. And so you’re constantly reframing the messaging and being able to, in a positive light to say, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, okay. Thank you so much for everything that you’re giving here. You know, here are pictures. But now we can only take this. Okay, now we’re changing, you know, and this was again a coordination that happened between Red Cross, salvation army, a lot of the other partners in this disaster recovery and all on our emergency evacuation center. Coordinating those messages so that we had a consistent message that was going out with the college. And so I would be out wandering around texting, posting these on Facebook. I would come in in the evenings and spend my time just responding to our Facebook messaging that was going on.

Cheryl Broom: (20:22)
I was going to ask you about social media, if you had someone managing that or if that just all fell to you in addition to the other work you were doing.

Peter Griggs: (20:30)
Great question. So initially I was the lead person doing all of the response, sending out the PR, but we did have in the evenings, so I would switch off. It was supposed to be 12-hour rotations, so you’d be on 12 off 12. Didn’t quite work out that way and that was entirely my fault. Right? This is no fault of our EOC. I was being told, hey, you need to go home. And I didn’t because you’re immersed in the situation. And I was trying to self-monitor and say, okay, how tired am I? Can I eat all night? I’m doing good. This is okay. Because I was the one who knew the technology, who knew the passwords, who had everything on his phone. So even though I did have help and great help, Greg Smith from HR was my backup. Theresa Markword was there and she did a phenomenal job. So we did have a support structure. But again, I was pretty much the person who was immersed in it and because it happened so quickly, there’s not time to sit there and say, okay, here’s what I need you to do. In retrospect, and now I have another staff member who has been trained on social because now we’re being able to think about this and say, no, I need to be able to call somebody in who could sit at the computer and even if they’re not responding on a minute by minute basis, they’re able to handle that aspect of it.

Cheryl Broom: (21:46)
There’s so many great lessons that you have shared to so many things that I think other PIOs should start thinking about and being prepared for. Anything else that you’d like to share? Any other lessons learned or now that you’ve had some time to reflect?

Peter Griggs: (22:02)
You know definitely, networking is going to be critical when something like this happens. So often I think we as PIOs, we focus on our institution, and rightfully so. We can only speak for our institution, but in an event like this, you’re going to be part of a huge community that you serve. So right now I would encourage you, contact your sheriff, contact your local fire department, find out who their PIOs are. We talked about knowing your local media contacts and yes, that’s true. And my local media was fantastic, right? They would come and work with me. They knew to call me. We would exchange business cards on the fly just because it’s, I don’t have time to look up a number. So just give me your card and I’ll call you here in an hour. But talk to your city, talk to your county. Talk to Red Cross right now before you have an emergency, get those numbers in your phone. Because that’s going to be critical when a disaster hits that they know you and that you know them and you can do that outreach.

Cheryl Broom: (23:06)
We were chatting right before we went live on the podcast and one thing that you had mentioned that had surprised you in retrospect is just the emotionality of the event and not having had a real opportunity yet to debrief kind of from an emotional point of view on how important it is for those people who are first responders or dealing with the emergency that are in the middle of it to take that time to really kind of debrief and to recover emotionally. I thought that was a really important tip to share with people too because you went through a crisis as well. I mean you didn’t experience a loss of a home, but you responded to, you know, hundreds if not thousands of people who were affected and who had a time of need.

Peter Griggs: (23:53)
True. And I think that in a larger context, when we say you, I would say the community at large, right? You mentioned our first responders. The college, I’m part of the longterm recovery team for the Carr Fire. And it was really enlightening to have that group come in and talk from an emotional, spiritual perspective what the stages are that our community would be going through. Not just the survivors, right, who have perhaps experienced a loss or you know had to be evacuated, which is an emotional trauma in and of itself. But all of us as a community will go through a period of grief and what some of the triggers are that as you go through and you have anniversary events, what you might be looking at and how you might want to deal with that type of remembrance. So you know, this will be far reaching beyond just the rebuilding of our community, of the physical structures. This has a lot to do with the emotional health that I have to say in being part of the longterm recovery and having gone through the initial emergency, the Redding community, the Shasta community is amazing in the outpouring of help that neighbor gave neighbor and that is still going on to this day and I think that a little more carry us through

Cheryl Broom: (25:19)
There’s a little silver lining in all of that disaster.

Peter Griggs: (25:23)
Yeah, definitely, I would say a large silver lining. Sometimes you never realize how strong you are until you’re tested and the Redding community is definitely strong.

Cheryl Broom: (25:35)
Well, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve learned so much from talking to you. I know a lot of our listeners probably have questions. Would it be okay for them to contact you, shoot you over an email, set up a phone call, if they wanted to learn more about your response and how to prepare?

Peter Griggs: (25:49)
Anytime. I’m part of CC PRO as you know and I have always valued the network that other PIOs have willingly given to me and so, if my experience can serve as either a, a lesson learned, something to do or something not to do as a takeaway, please feel free to call me and if you’re going through a crisis, if you just need a sounding board, call me.

Cheryl Broom: (26:14)
All right. Thanks so much, Peter.

Peter Griggs: (26:15)
You’re welcome.

Cheryl Broom: (26:16)
And that wraps up this episode of Community College Marketing MasterClass. Join us next time for some other great interviews and like always, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to hit us up directly at cheryl.broom@interactcom.com. Thanks so much. Hope to hear from you soon. Bye.

Announcer: (26:35)
Thank you for joining the Community College Marketing MasterClass podcast. For more great tips on how to improve marketing and communications for your two-year college, visit interactcom.com and join us next time as we discuss and share actionable time-tested strategies on topics directly related to community college marketing.