BLAZE MESSAGE: 14 lessons fire comms can teach everyone

sapA thousand flowers are blooming in this new era of digital communications.

Amazing things are happening, new rulebooks are being written and old ones tossed away.

But if you are too busy growing roses you won’t spot the great things happening.

Or in other words, look outside your own corner of the world and you’ll find great things.

And so it is with fire and rescue services not just across the UK but across the world. I’ve done some work in the sector and got to know some people and I’ve always left with knew ideas on how to do things.

Often, people in the sector don’t realise just how great their work is. Less in number than local and central government comms people from the sector communicate to save lives and to prevent them. I’d love them to be bolder. They don’t just get you to test your smoke alarm. They save lives.

One myth exploded, though. In the UK the comms is not geared up primarily for documenting heroic rescue. Prevention is better than cure. Statistics say there were 258 fatalities in the 12-months to March 2015 and 3,225 were taken to hospital. There were almost 155,000 fires. This is the second lowest in UK history.

Fire comms people need to move from the pedestrian pace of advice to business to communicating death and sometimes the death of their own colleagues. That takes guts. Not everyone can do this.

There is a community of fire communicators

The FirePRO organisation is the umbrella group for the sector and a bright bunch they are too. But Twitter also connects them not just across the UK but far further. The fact I asked a question about best practice on a Friday night and got a pile of responses is perfect evidence. Neil Spencer from West Midlands fire describes this as a ‘can do, will do, let’s give it a try attitude.’

Here are 14 things you can learn from fire comms

#1 Using planning to get your shizzle ready

Nobody wants an emergency. But they tend to happen and when they do public sector comms people have to react. I’ve lost count of the number of blank faces in local government when I ask what they’d do if a plane crashed, a bomb went off or a tower block started to fall down. Not so fire and rescue.

As award-winning Bridget Aherne wrote in a blog post for comms2point0:

“The way to sum this up quickly – and sorry to anyone who knows me because you’ll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before – you have to be proactive about your reactive communications.”

Lesson: Good comms planning always helps.

#2 Using Periscope for realtime situation reports

Lesson: If an incident is breaking live video from the scene to give situation reports has real value and can plug into online networks as well as media organisations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 18-months co-delivering workshops on making effective video for comms. It teaches people to plan, edit, shoot and post video. However, in an emergency the value is not the well-shot video. The value is have video footage from that particular spot at that particular time. Why? So you can communicate with people in realtime. In the UK, there is a duty on comms people in local government, fire, police and other agencies to warn and inform.
As this US example shows, a firefighter giving a commentary or even a brief situation report – has value. Don’t forget anyone with a smartphone and the Periscope app has the ability to fill that information vacuum. Questions can also be posed by people following the stream and answered by fire crew.

In an era where video is highly sought by media organisations online to be in the frontline is priceless.

#3 Using a hashtag

Lesson: A simple sharable hashtag can help spread a campaign.

One of the greatest uses of a hashtag by anyone in the public sector is the excellent #testittuesday tag. Started by Norfolk Fire and rescue it is that brilliant thing of basic advice shared as a hashtag. It encourages people every Tuesday to test their smoke alarm. As basic good advice it can be hard to measure the effectiveness or the fires that didn’t happen because of a test.

#4 Using Instagram as a channel

Lesson: Instagram can be used for soft power. Images of the work people to do interspersed with more serious messages.

Services across the world are starting to make headway with Instagram. Really, there’s no surprise. It’s not like there’s nothing to photograph. If there isn’t a fire there’s the equipment or the staff in the equipment. Kent Fire and Rescue Service excell in this area. A stream that is engaging, fun and personable people could do worse than looking at this.

Keep smiling after after a good night out. Being drunk and cooking don’t mix. #smilesafe #fire #firefighter

A photo posted by Fire and Rescue (@kentfirerescue) on Jul 12, 2016 at 5:41am PDT

 

#5 Using mapping

Lesson: Maps can communicate with the media and residents and reduce avoidable contact.

Back when I was a journalist we made a round of calls to fire stations on our patch at 7.30am, 1pm and 10pm. There were six in our patch and a further 14 in surrounding areas which we sort of covered. That’s 60 calls a call.

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service have a mapping page embedded in their website which gives news of incidents with some basic details. They also post images and videos which can be used with a credit. This must cut the amount of time on routine calls. Hats off to Sarah Roberts for this.

mapping

#6 Using the social web as a firefighter and human being

Lesson: People respond to people so let your people.

One thing I’ve long argued for is for public sector people to use social media as themselves. There’s far greater cut-through. People connect better to real people than a logo. So, it’s always inspiring to see real people doing just that. Thanks to @rubonist on Twitter for flagging this.

#7 Using the social web as a senior officer

Lesson: Using the social web allows senior people to be visible and to listen better. It also allows partners and the organisation to better understand their thinking and priorities. 

There has been a trend in recent years of senior public sector people using Twitter to engage, listen, share ideas and give some visibility to yourself.

#8 Using embedded social media video

Lesson: Embedding video to drop into people’s timelines can be a good way to communicate.

Sometimes things don’t always go to plan as this incident which saw five people die in Nechells, Birmingham. Video content posted to Twitter shared the press conference to the community. This could have been uploaded to Facebook too.

#9 Using humour and newsjacking

Lesson: Being creative about your communications and the channels you use can pay off.

As London Fire Brigade showed in their epic news jacking of the racy film 50 Shades of Grey imagination on comms works. A campaign followed in the wake of the film to talk about the number of times people had called for help with locked handcuffs, penis rings and other rather embarrassment-creating problems. The #50shadesofred campaign is a benchmark in public sector comms. Data driven it used a range of channels.

#10 Using data to allow people to build their own picture

 

Lesson: Data can be turned into something searchable to give people street-level insight.

Everyone’s experience is different. This is why it is refreshing to see West Midlands Fire Service use their incident data to allow you to search by postcode to see what incidents happened in your neighbourhood.

merry

#11 Using Flickr as an image library

Lesson: A Flickr library can make thousands of images available for re-use.

Social photo storage site Flickr may not have the sexiness as Snapchat but as a place to be your public image library it remains peerless. There are several organisations in the UK using it well. However, the US use is the benchmark. Los Angeles Fire Department post images to the stream. They have almost 20,000 images. With an open licence anyone can use them. As the argument goes, public money paid for then so why shouldn’t with the permission of the photographer people and organisations re-use them?

LA fire

 

#12 Using Facebook for large communities

Lesson: Facebook pages are a start but not the last word on how people can be reached on the platform.

Pages can be a useful way to have some Facebook real estate although they deal with broadcasting to small corners of the web that can be shared on. Manchester Fire and Rescue and Scottish Fire and Rescue are examples.

But to really engage, you need to use Facebook as the page to comment and add content on other pages. Or join Facebook groups as an individual.

#13 Using Facebook for niche communities

Lesson: Facebook pages for smaller communities can be effective ways of reaching them. The Polish community, maybe. Or in Biker Down‘s case motorbike riders.

Facebook has the numbers so it is worth using. Seeing as it has the numbers yo can also carve out niches where people will congregate. There were more than 5,000 serious incidents with motorbikes in 2014. I’ve long believed that the single corporate page is almost always not the answer for large organisations. There are communities within them, so plug into them. If you are a biker the Biker Down page would work.

kent biker down

#14 Using Facebook quizzes

Lesson: Quizes reach people. Often people who are hard to engage with.

Facebook quizzes can engage with audiences that may well be resistant to leaflets and other comms. London Fire Brigade uses them well and creates them to accompany campaigns. They’ve done them to see if people fancy being firefighters, for example. With this one, they are celebrating their 150th anniversary with helmets.

london quiz 2

#15 Using Snapchat

nimesLesson: Yes, you can use Snapchat.

One of the good things about the web is coming across organisations doing good things in other countries. Take Sapeurs Pompiers Volontaires du Gard. They are a French fire brigade in Nimes in the south of the country who have an imaginative use of images on Twitter and Snapchat too.

 

Thanks for the input for this post from people across the Fire and Rescue comms community. In particular: Catherine Levin, Neil Spencer, Bridget Aherne, Sarah Roberts, Robert Coles, @Rubonist, Thanh Ngugen, Steven Morgan, Phillip Gillingham, Jim Williams, Pave Dhande, Leigh Holmes, Jack Grasby, Pete Richardson, Dave Walton and Dawn Whittaker.


TRUE GRIT: A localgov winter social media case study

Every mile is two in winter, the Elizabethan poet George Herbert wisely said.

True words then and true today and he never had to drive a Vauxhall Astra on the M6 in minus five degree weather.

In local government its worth going the extra mile in wintry weather.

Get things right in sub zero weather and you’re laughing.

Get it wrong and you’re not. Just ask the Scottish transport minister who resigned after scathing criticism.

For the past two weeks Walsall Council – the council I work for –  has been using social media as a key way to keep people updated on wintry weather.

It’s not the first time. Last year, we were one of a small number to use social media. We used Twitter to flag up gritting and service disruption.

This time, we expanded a touch. During the icy period of November 26 to December 11 2010 we used the council website, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

What did we do this year?

Staff were primed to email the communications unit, members of the team by 8am every day as well as individuals. When the gritters went out the engineers e-mailed and even called to flag up what they were up to.

Council website www.walsall.gov.uk

With new digital channels taking all the attention you’d be forgiven for overlooking your website. Don’t. It’s where a lot of your content can go.

We used one page on the website as a links directory to more than half a dozen potential service areas so people didn’t have to search around the website.

It’s where most people will go first.

Twitter @walsallcouncil

Stats: 2,200 followers (a five per cent rise in two weeks)

261 tweets at almost 19 a day.

Content: Updates on gritting, school closures, service disruption.
Links to council gritting pages, school closure page organised by education provider Serco.

Links to winter shots taken by residents and posted on Twitpic and Flickr.

Links to BBC weather.

Link to the @mappamercia grit map.

Did we RT?: Of course. Social media is supposed to be social. We retweeted the Met Office weather forecasts, neighbouring authority grit updates and advice on

Facebook: Our Walsall fan page

Stats: 345 likes (up 10 per cent in two weeks)

Daily post views up 3,105 or 82 per cent.

Updates: 27

Each status update received between 159 and 783 page impressions.

Content: Three to four updates a day with links to a general page.

Flickr and Twitpic

Stats: 6 pics posted on Flickr and 12 pics crowdsourced and retweeted on Twitter to provide content from residents themselves. Shots varied from the amateur twitpic to the almost professional here.

A set of pics were posted of the gritters in action at a training event in late autumn designed to test out the routes. These were posted to Flickr but the best pics came from residents themselves. In the spirit of web 2.0 we posted links to good shots.

One pic was crowdsourced for the council website header shot.

Content: snowy scenes taken by residents as well as shots of gritters posted by the press office.

Open data

It’s one of the great jobs of this winter to see a mapping project really take off in Walsall. The Mappa Mercia group are people I’ce blogged about previously. Last winter they drew-up a grit map on open street map for Birmingham. You can take a look here. They spotted the grit routes for Walsall and Solihull too and quietly added them. So, when winter came we were quite happy to link to their map. It shows residents spotting a need and doing it themselves.

Content: grit routes.

EIGHT things we’d suggest:

  • Get service areas to tell you what they are doing.
  • Communicate to residents in good time.
  • Monitor, respond and communicate every four hours. Have a rota to do this.
  • Put the same message across different channels. But in the language of the platform. Don’t RSS it across everything. It won’t work.
  • You can crowdsource good picture content.
  • Have an idea what the frequently asked questions are and think about the answers before you are asked.
  • Take a screen shot of the positive and negative comments from Facebook and Twitter. It gives the service areas an idea of what is being said if you email it to them. The positive stuff will go down very well and make them more supportive of what you are doing.
  • You can reply to negative comments. But if people swear or are sarcastic think twice. You may not have a constructive conversation.

DAY TO DAY DATA: An idiot’s guide to what the open data revolution means for local government

Okay. Cards on the table. For the last 12 months I’ve been coming across geeks who have been banging on about data with a religious zeal.

You can see them wherever digital people meet-up with their Atari t-shirts and their Mash the State badges.

Internet creator Tim Berners-Lee a while back got an entire conference to chant ‘free the data!’ over and over.

Why?

What the flip is data? Why the flip should I be bothered? I’m just a local government press officer.

It was Tom Watson MP who I first heard talk about data in the summer of 2009 at the Black Country Social Media Cafe.

Gradually, after scores of conversations, blog reading and thinking it’s started to make some sense.

What has emerged to me is a picture of the potential for nothing short of a revolution. In life and by extension in local government.

What is data?

It’s information. It may be bicycle accidents. It may be crime figures. It may be the location of street lights or a leisure centre.

Pretty boring, yes?

On it’s own probably. But it starts to get really, really interesting when that information gets presented in an easily digestible way. Like on a map, say.

It gets even more interesting when several streams of information are put on the same map. It can make the world we live in look a different place.

The bicycle accidents map is a brilliant early example of how this can work.

Isn’t that only of interest to cyclists?

Yes, but that’s the whole point. It’s information – or data – that’s buried away which is fabulously interesting if you were a cyclist. You could find out where the accident blackspots were and avoid them. Or maybe campaign for something to be done about them.

The open street map is one such editable map with scores of snippets of data.

In the West Midlands, the MappaMercia project have kicked some ideas around. The gritting map of Birmingham is one example of turning data into something interactive. It plots gritting routes around the city which are treated in icy weather.

Start to make sense?

Here is a Q and A. It’s an idiot’s guide to data written by an eejit after talking and listening. It’s not a definitive. But it’s one take on what data will mean for local government.

What is data?

Data is information. Simple as that. Broadly speaking, this can be on a whole range of subjects. It could be weather data, news data, scientific data or government data. Even what time the 404A bus route runs from Cradley Heath to Walsall can be classed as data.

What about personal data?

All that stuff isn’t really of interest to enthusiasts who want to build maps and mess about with things. However, every time you use your Tesco Clubcard that data gets stored by Tesco. The supermarket giant then use that to build a picture of what lines are doing well and also a snapshot of your shopping habits.

Isn’t data available anyway?

If you are Sherlock Holmes and you look hard enough there’s a stack that could be found. But that’s just it. In the 21st century we expect more than just that information is stored in filing cabinets that may or may not be open to the public twice a year. In 430 different locations (one for every local council).

But isn’t data about bus routes and bus arrival times like, really, really boring?

To you maybe. But if you catch the 404A from Cradley Heath you’d want to know when the buses left and – here’s the nub – how reliable they were.

What is a ‘mash-up’?

This is where information has been taken and presented in a different format. On a fun level, the United Cakedom mash-up plots where cake reviews were carried out. There’s also a picture and a link to the blog that carried them.

Yes, but what does this mean for local government?

It means more transparency.

It means that people can see what is going on. It can also means that better informed decisions can be made by decision makers. That has to be good.

What would the average council officer think of making data freely available?

Frankly, they may be terrified.

Why?

If you are working at a particular coalface you may think that the information you are collecting is actually yours.

It can be sat on an officer’s hard drive and jealously guarded.

The officer may be worried at how this information plays out amongst residents. It could lead to criticism and awkward questions being asked. That’s democracy.

Why should local government officers not worry?

Frankly, many of the decisions about releasing data are being made at a very senior level in Government. More than 3,000 data sets – that’s packets of useful information – have been made available by the British Government via data.gov.uk.

Are there any amusing examples of data worry?

The Localgovcamp event in London recently heard of an example of how the Royal Mail stepped in to ask a council to stop mapping Victorian postboxes as the information ‘could be of use to terrorists’.

There was also the worry that a grit bin map could be used by grit thieves at a time of short supply.

What’s all this fuss about data.gov.uk?

This is a website for masses of data to be made available.

What sort of information can be found there?

It’s a range of public information from birth rates to accident statistics to death rates.

Isn’t data.gov.uk difficult to understand to the lay person?

Yes and no. It’s all in one place which makes a start. But the real beauty is when web developers get their hands on it and make easy to use applications like the iphone ASBOmeter that tells you where and how often anti-social behaviour orders are handed out by courts.

What about council websites? What does this mean for them?

Previously, there was effectively one door to knock on for council information. The council website. That’s changing.

As data becomes freely available anyone tech-savvy can build a website and display council data. Remember, as taxpayers it is effectively theirs.

Remember the bicycle accident site? People would be more inclined to go there rather than turn detective. See? See how it starts to work?

Do council websites do nothing then?

No, not at all. It means that as the bar has been raised to present information council web people will have to learn new skills. Interactive mapping is a must. Simply posting a pdf that won’t show up in a google search just isn’t good enough.

Is this political?

Different political parties are starting to construct policies around it. It’s not for me to comment on the rights and wrongs of those parties.

Undoubtedly, in local politics the trends and anomolies thrown up by open data will enter into the political arena.

So, this is all about big government then isn’t it?

Not really. There’s a stack of data collected by government both local and national.

There’s also a lot more which individuals create, either consciously or unconsciously. It happens every time you use the web, for example. Google checks where you are clicking so it can rank pages accordingly. When you follow someone on Twitter data is collected. Add a picture to Flickr and more gets created.

Can we go off as local government officers and build Google maps? And what about Ordnance Survey?

Err, no. No blog about the public sector and maps is complete without a line about Ordnance Survey. This is the state-owned organisation that licenses people, companies and state owned bodies, such as councils, for the right to use maps.

Open data people get really cross with OS. It’s our data, they argue.

Right now, there is a row going on between OS and Google which means that local government people can’t use Google maps. This may change in the near future.

Not heard enough? What does world wide web creator and brains behind data.gov.uk Tim Berners-Lee say about it?

There is a brilliant TED talk on data which should be required viewing. You can view it here.

During it (at about 4 minutes 30 seconds) he shows a clip of Hans Rosling using data visualisation to shatter a commonly held myth about poverty. People in non-western countries die early with big families. Right? Wrong. Not any more they don’t. He used birth and death data to create an animated chart to bring alive his argument.

The original talk by Hans is here.

This is what Tim Berners-Lee says: “Data drives a huge amount of what happens in our lives.

“I want to think of a world where everyone has put data on the web and so everything you imagine is on the web.

“I’m calling that linked data. It’s about making the world run better.”

If you were looking for a starting point, take a look at Tim Berners-Lee’s six minute film here on how that data stuff and people who knew what they were doing helped save lives in Haiti in 2010.

SIX things local government people can do:

1. Remember that data collected by local government doesn’t belong to local government. Or the officer that collected it. It belongs to residents.

2. Realise it’s going to happen anyway. It’s not your decision. Open data is often Government level.

3. Start using data to feed back into the decision making process. Maybe there is a site out there that can be used?

4. Raise the bar when presenting information on council websites. Think maps. Think RSS feed too.

5. Realise that data no matter how boring to you is madly interesting to somebody somewhere.

6. Look for data that can be made public. A map with layers to show who your councillor is, where the leisure centre is and where the library is is a start. Add past election results too.

Start to make sense now?

Creative commons credits

Data – Patrick Hoesly, Bike – Kicki, Seventies computer – AJ Mexico, Caramel – Matthew Murray, Handheld – Zach Klein, Tim Berners-Lee – Farm4Static.