This week, ELi did something we’ve never done before: We held a series of emergency drills.
On the morning of #GivingTuesday, we spent an hour working through a mass shooting on campus, a series of gas explosions in East Lansing neighborhoods, and a tornado that hit my house. East Lansing Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez joined us.
What did we learn? A lot. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Back not that long ago, when local news came chiefly on paper, local news operations were supported through subscriptions and ads. Today, most people get their news in electronic forms – which is good for emergencies, because it’s fast. But having news move online is bad for the survival of news operations, because many people expect everything posted online to be free.
Online advertising and subscriptions simply can’t support the bare minimum costs of producing local news today (paying reporters, editors, tech managers, etc.). So, to bring East Lansing the news, ELi is run as a nonprofit news organization that keeps expenses super low.
We maximize our public service by minimizing expenses. We spend almost all funds donated to ELi on paying local people to bring the news. We do everything we can to save money, including buying discounted postage stamps and waiting for sales when we need to buy envelopes. We have no office and never have.
So, why would we run an emergency drill and ask Deputy Chief Gonzalez to join us? Because Managing Editor Emily Joan Elliott, City Desk Editor Andrew Graham, and I realized that if we face a major emergency here, we are going to have to help people know what’s going on fast.
The staff at ELi is also going to have to go all-hands-on-deck to triage rumors and find out what we can without getting in the way of provision of emergency services.
As a consequence, I asked ELi’s Data Analyst Nathan Andrus to come up with a series of emergency scenarios to put to our lead editors, so we could figure out what we might want to understand in advance of the next emergency.
We scheduled a Zoom call for Tuesday morning with Nathan, Andrew, Emily, Deputy Chief Gonzalez, and me, and we talked through what we would need to do to help inform and protect this community. (Ironically, just before the call, Nathan’s house lost power, which meant he had to run the drill from his car.)
The first scenario Nathan had prepared for us was a mass shooting on the west side of Spartan Stadium during a big game. The emergency included the AT&T cell system being down — something that may sound far-fetched but isn’t. As someone who lives near downtown, I can tell you I have often experienced zero cell service during big games, including when I’ve needed to call the police. In this case, that created an issue because Emily’s phone uses AT&T.
The second scenario Nathan put to us mimicked the Merrimack Valley gas explosions of 2018, when human error caused explosions and fires to break out all over a region, causing mass confusion and taxing emergency services. In this role-play, our local fire departments were quickly overwhelmed with calls.
The third scenario had a tornado take out my house and cause serious damage in and around the Hannah Community Center. I like to think Nathan chose this one because it meant the team would have to think about how to operate without me, not because he actually fantasizes about a tornado doing me in.
We learned far more than I expected in this one-hour exercise.
Deputy Chief Gonzalez helped us understand important aspects of emergency preparedness, local response systems, and ELPD communications. He helped us realize we need to discourage gawkers during active responses, but also have ELi reporters “on the ground” to help provide accurate information.
We also realized that we at ELi need to have an “in case of emergency, break glass” set of instructions to ourselves about things we need to do and consider during these kinds of scenarios. That includes assigning someone on the team to monitor social media for potentially dangerous rumors that need checking, having back-up systems for reaching each other if a cell system goes out, and having at-the-ready text to share with readers about how they should protect themselves in specific emergencies.
In addition, we realized we need to bring emergency preparedness information (like this report by Emily) more often and we need to try harder to get people to pay attention to it. For example, we need to encourage people (like, um, me) to learn how to turn off the gas at their homes.
So, we’re getting to work on all that! This kind of information-readiness is part of our job at ELi, and yet I’m embarrassed to admit it had not occurred to me in prior years to run a drill like this.
If you want to keep this news service alive – to have this extra layer of protection in our city in the event of emergencies: a reliable, fact-checking news service – I really need you to help today.
I need donations to pay our people. Know that about 90 percent of whatever you donate will go to pay people like Emily, Andrew, Nathan, and me, as well as our broad reporting staff, to keep bringing you the news to help keep you safe.
Today, we have about $43,000 raised towards our year-end goal of $200,000. A lot of people don’t contribute to ELi until late December, we know. But it’s getting close to the end of the year now. Can you please step up to help?
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