What I Learned at Advanced PIO

The full Advanced PIO class of April 28-May 4, 2019. Lisa Miller photo
By Lisa Miller
Traveler information manager

If you haven’t already attended the FEMA Advanced Public Information Officer (PIO) course… do it. The training, held at the Emergency Management Institute in Emmitsburg, Maryland, is well worth the effort.

This five-day course refreshes the fundamentals that every PIO should have in their toolbox and covers a wealth of advanced information that will improve your perspective and reach as a PIO. Instructions for how to apply are at the end of this post.

Here’s a snapshot of what I learned:


The attendees of this class speak your language. They have had similar situations. There is a wealth of knowledge to transfer just by having lunch and dinner together. This class had nearly 50 participants from all over the nation representing fire, police, National Guard, FEMA and public agencies. We’re all keeping in touch via a Facebook page specifically for our class.

The state JIC during the exercise portion of the class. Lisa Miller photo.

Exercises are critically important

We already know this, but finding time can be difficult. The class schedule blocked 1½ days for a functional exercise focused on Joint Information Center (JIC) coordination. There was a state JIC for the first time in the class as well as local JICs for each fictitious municipality. The injects were phenomenal and encouraged us to build on our institutional knowledge as well as struggle a bit with the things that were less familiar to us.

Leave your ego at the door

For those of you who have been to the training, “don’t be Pam.” Working in a JIC can be a stressful environment without adding inflated egos to the dynamic.

Everyone has the same goal… get the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decisions.

Overall emergency goals of protecting life and preserving property are much better facilitated when everyone checks their ego at the door.

PIOs from around the nation attend the course. It’s a great chance to learn. Lisa Miller photo

There are no bad ideas

During the first day or so of the class, everyone is still in the mode of familiarizing themselves with their classmates. Nobody wants to be the person who brings up an idea that elicits an eye roll! The instructors of the training quickly established the idea that there are no bad ideas. We were all learning and growing together and everyone was encouraged to participate.

Don’t only rely on social media

We are so engrained in social media as a way to reach our constituents. However, in an emergency situation, it’s not the only channel that needs attention. One of the presentations at the Utah PIO Association conference last year stressed this. Wildfires, rural populations, different languages and rapidly changing information can cause confusion and panic among citizens. During times of non-emergency, hone your skills on how to communicate with your audiences through all channels so you’re ready to go when an emergency strikes.

Write for a lower reading level

Every agency is full of acronyms that sometimes do not translate well outside of the agency. Remember that your audience may have language barriers or may read at a lower grade level. According to the Utah Department of Health, nearly 8% of adults in Utah operate at below a high school level. Nationally, this number is around 12%.

PIOs love karaoke

You haven’t truly lived until you’ve heard someone from the St. Louis Division of Water Quality sing Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” at karaoke night. #nailedit

Have you attended APIO 0388? What were your thoughts and takeaways?

Lisa Miller
APIO Graduate
April 28-May 4, 2019

Editor’s note:

How to apply for Advanced PIO

The course prerequisites list is lengthy and the application process can take quite a while. Classes fill up quickly so plan ahead.

Course description and prerequisites
Download the application form here
When all prerequisites are complete, fill out and sign the application, have your boss sign in the appropriate place and then send your course certificates and application to Kris Repp at krepp@utah.gov. She is the State Training Officer and forwards your application to FEMA.

Quarterly meeting recap: Cultural considerations and PIO Lessons from the Nurse Wubbels incident

Thank you to Salt Lake City Emergency Management, who hosted the May 9 meeting.

img_5956.jpgKenya Rene, SLC EM’s PIO, opened our meeting with these words of advice for communicators:

“I hope as we train and evolve with our communication skills, we include and become aware of uncomfortable subjects, like white privilege, cultural appropriation, micro-aggressions and equity vs. equality.

Our state is becoming more diverse as we welcome people from all backgrounds, Let’s connect with everybody, making sure we include them in event decisions and think of them when writing a press release, an invite or social media post.

If you don’t know, ask. Get informed about the culture or community you want to approach.”

Thanks, Kenya! For hosting the meeting, Kenya gets in free to the annual PIO Conference in September.

Moving on to our keynote presentation:

How do PIOs respond when their agencies are on opposite side of public sentiment?

IMG_5960Our many thanks to Kathy Wilets from University of Utah Health, Chris Nelson from the University of Utah and Christi Judd from Salt Lake City Police Department for presenting on the Nurse Wubbels incident.

No doubt, you have seen this video:

Here are the lessons Kathy, Christi and Chris shared during their presentation:

  • This was a crisis decades in the making. Agencies need to figure out now who is in charge and who has jurisdiction.
  • It’s important to sit down with players as soon as possible during an incident and in the aftermath. Lots of communication has happened between Nurse Wubbels and the SLCPD, between SLCPD and the hospital and to other groups, such as the nursing association, as well.
  • People will call 911 to report what they see on YouTube. Salt Lake City’s 911 dispatchers were beset with 911 calls for days because people were calling to report the Nurse Wubbels incident.
  • The incident affected the morale for officers at SLCPD and the university. They were all taking verbal punches for the decisions of one man. Remember your people who are still out working in the public eye in the aftermath of a crisis.
  • Have your talking points ready to go ASAP. Kathy received a call at the end of one day that started like this: “You are live on the BBC in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
    Because she was prepared, this encounter didn’t faze her.
  • Get your war room together. Prepare to pull in every resource (human and non-human) so you can get your strategy built and develop your messaging.
  • If you can, designate one person to field all media inquiries. Christi Judd called back every media person, which made messaging consistent to all media outlets.
  • PIOs, even on opposing sides of an issue, can be friends. Christi and Kathy talked often following the incident and continue to maintain a good relationship.
  • Be prepared to talk internally, as well.Don’t leave co-workers in the dark. They are part of your team. Your co-workers will also go home at the end of the day and neighbors, family members and friends will ask them what is going on. Help them be effective spokespeople.
  • What is your ongoing strategy to regularly communicate with the community? It’s not just about messaging the community during the crisis, but what are you doing now to serve the community and tell your story to build good will?

Thanks again to our hosts and to our speakers. The next quarterly meeting will be August 15 in Eagle Mountain City. Come ready to learn what we took away from the Government Social Media Conference, which took place in Denver in April.

Joe Dougherty is the PIO for the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
Find him on Twitter at @PIO_Joe

Conducting your local PIO meetings

The “Liberty County JIC” during the Feb. 2018 APIO Course at EMI.

You’ve suddenly found yourself as the chair of your local PIO group! Congratulations! What a great opportunity to lead the enhancement of public information in your area.

It can seem daunting to have to wrangle PIOs to get them to attend a meeting, but if you provide valuable content, and someone can help with the occasional snacks or lunch, you can have a robust local PIO group. Below are some topic ideas to get you started with the content for your first meetings. Don’t forget to ask local participants what they would like to learn.

Topic ideas:

  • Ask for a status update.
  • Ask about any upcoming issues.
  • Hold a tabletop exercise to discuss emergency response or mutual aid plans for PIOs.
  • Conduct a JIC callout exercise.
  • Conduct a workshop where planning or operational documents are researched or created.
  • Provide training on various topics
    • Social media best practices
    • Social media monitoring
    • Live video considerations
    • Graphic design
    • Photography principles
  • Speaker ideas:
    • Invite media members for a discussion .
    • Lessons learned from a recent incident.
    • Find a State PIO to discuss their role in assisting your efforts during emergencies.
    • Discussion with local elected officials.

What other ideas are out there? What has worked well for you?

Joe Dougherty is the PIO Association Secretary and
PIO for the Utah Division of Emergency Management
jdougherty@utah.gov | Twitter: @PIO_Joe

PIO lessons learned from the Uintah Fire

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Click the image to play a recap video of the Uintah Fire produced by Weber County

We were fortunate to hear from three PIOs who worked on the 2017 Uintah Fire during the Jan. 17, 2018, Quarterly Meeting. Their presentations are embedded after the notes on each section and are posted on Issuu here.

Holin Wilbanks, Weber County

We had to make sure all of the social media accounts were saying the same thing.


  • As we were sending out critical information, we were also telling them about what we were doing well and why we were ready. Residents began to share that information and the Governor shared that information, as well.
  • We established the hashtag #UintahFire early on and that allowed us to track our data, as well.
  • Weber County became the accurate source of  information for residents and the press.
  • We briefed the families first and the press second.


  • It’s not over when the fire is out
    • Community recovery included putting out 10 Dumpsters for green waste, involving USU extension horticulturalist for training for homeowners, taking recovery documentation to homeowners in neighborhoods and posting all info to the county site.
  • Keep a PIO in incident command
    • We had a bunch of PIOs all working in different directions. We finally got together partway through the first day.
  • Keep a PIO assigned as an evacuee advocate
  • Now we have a communication plan with the Wildland Urban Interface Plan.
  • All info should have gone through a single channel.
  • Share your social media passwords.
  • Have your communications form up and ACTIVE for press and constituents
  • Maximize your team members and coordinate.
  • Know your role!
  • Engage with your GIS department. I wish I had a map.

Lane Findlay, Weber School District

  • Initially had no contact from law enforcement or fire
  • So, decision to evacuate Uintah Elementary happened at 11 a.m., more than three hours after the fire started.
  • Parents were picking up students and once we received notification from dispatch, started to evacuate. We got 13 buses to take children to Dee Events Center.


  • Reunification was complete by 1 p.m.
  • Great leadership team


  • Have a plan in place
  • Build partnerships
  • Be flexible
  • Media were able to get inside the Dee Events Center and take photos of children.

Chris Williams, Davis School District

  • Fire was 500 yards from South Weber Elementary and kids were already there.
  • We have 89 schools, 72,000 kids and we have the ability to change any school website, so we did for South Weber.
  • We moved students to Clearfield High School, huge challenge with geography for evacuating students.


  • Most parents picked up their kids.
  • Have someone embedded with command post.
  • Contact other agency PIOs – For Davis Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. DeeAnn Servey
  • Stay within my lane.

Thank you to everyone for sharing your insights and a huge shout out to University of Utah Health for hosting us!

Compiled by Joe Dougherty, PIO Association Secretary and
PIO for the Utah Division of Emergency Management
jdougherty@utah.gov | Twitter: @PIO_Joe

When you need digital/social media support

UtahVOST1 square-02

Today, Cheryl Bledsoe (Twitter.com/CherylBle), from Virtual EMA one of the pioneers of the VOST movement, held a webinar to discuss the Virtual Operations Support Team and how the team works.

In 2010, emergency managers were talking about how to harness the power of social media. They came up with the concept of the VOST to use social media “trusted agents” in diverse locations to help incident leaders have better information and complete web-based missions for emergency response.

As we know, social media helps you be more dynamic, listen to the public, share information and help incident command get intelligence.

Some web-based teams you may have heard of include Humanity Road or the American Red Cross’s digital engagement teams. But VOST is different.

The goal: Provide a snapshot of what is happening on social media as a member of the EOC or incident command. VOSTs can look for rumors and misinformation, threats and copycats, unsolicited volunteers, etc.

They curate and bring that information together and prepare narrative listening reports, filtering out the noise and clutter of social media.

Missions can be long (during a wildfire) or short.

Case study: Umpqua Community College shooting, October 2015

  • 10-member VOST, but only used 2-3 people per day. Mission was active for 17 days.
  • Evaluated spontaneous volunteers and fundraisers.
  • Presidential visit

VOST training available

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Where we would like to go in Utah:

  • Conduct training: Virtual EMA does training on Fridays and Saturdays.
  • Build our team to be capable identifying rumors and misinformation.
  • Become skilled at curating social media messages and images.
  • Understand and become proficient at the tools that are available.
  • PIOs should consider becoming VOST team members.

If you would like to be part of UtahVOST1, contact Joe Dougherty, jdougherty@utah.gov.

Joe Dougherty, @PIO_Joe