The Code RED alert came across the KUOZ news desk at around 1 p.m.?”News tip received at 0900 7 May 2014.?Joint agencies setting up Incident Command Center 1697 HWY 21 North, where Search and Rescue teams from Franklin and Johnson counties are preparing to search for missing woman and child.?PIO will be with one of the SAR teams and is not known at this time.”
Thankfully, the alert wasn’t real. It was a training drill, organized by Ozarks’ Director of Broadcasting, Susan Edens, and her fellow Search and Rescue team members from Johnson, Franklin, and Logan counties.
But if you just happened to be passing through Walker Hall as six reporters were getting ready to leave for the command center, you would not have known this was a drill. For the student reporters in Edens’ Broadcast Journalism class – Andrea Avalos; Corey Pintado; Alix Tiegs; Virgil Trimbach; Ty Volz; and Ryan West – the alert was serious and they had a job to do.
Cameras, cables, tripods, microphones, laptops, notepads, pens – everything was quickly packed into vehicles. Within thirty minutes, they were turning off of Highway 21 into a dusty graveled lot. As they began to unload their gear, West walked on ahead, stepped past a line of cones and went up to a man wearing an orange Johnson County SAR shirt. Who is the incident commander? Where are we supposed to set up, he wanted to know.
The man replied that his name was Klay Rowbotham, and that he would be the incident commander. The line of cones marked the command center perimeter, and the first press briefing was going to start in about five minutes.
Andrea Avalos and Virgil Trimbach move to the press briefing area with their camera equipment.
Only five minutes! The reporters had a lot to do. The midday sun beat down on them as they carried heavy bags of camera equipment the hundred yards from the cars to the press area, unrolled audio cables, set up tripods and checked audio and video. The minutes ticked by. “Good to go?” a man in a neon yellow shirt asked the reporters. Seeing nods of confirmation, he stepped up to the briefing area.
“My name is David Schlorer,” he said. “I’m with Logan County Search and Rescue and I’ll be your public information officer for this incident. What we know now is that we have a mother and a son missing. They apparently went fishing earlier today and have not returned. We have crews out there looking for them right now.”
In the background, Edens watched as the reporters scribbled notes, and called out questions. “Can you tell us who the search parties are?” “At approximately what time did they go missing?” “Can you give us a description?” Some questions could be answered. Others could not.
“Ok, I’m going to break character for just a moment,” Edens said to the reporters as the briefing ended and the SAR personnel moved away. “Get as close to the action as you’re allowed to be. There are going to be some things that will happen, you’ll hear some things on the radio, that kind of thing….” Her voice faded into the chatter of radio traffic, gas generators, and ATV engines as she walked with the reporters back to the staging area.
Corey Pintado and Ty Volz review their notes as they get ready for their live cut-in.
Snatches of conversation come in over the radios – “shoeprint;” “dive team;” “cadaver.” And while the SAR teams were out in the field searching for the missing, the reporters were back at the command center searching too…searching for the story. Trimbach wrote out questions as he listened to the chatter. Tiegs set up a camera shot of the command center. Pintado moved in with another camera as a search vehicle pulled away from the command center. They were in full-on reporter mode, in the hunt for the story.
It was time for the second press briefing – more questions, still not much information. This briefing ended abruptly though, when new information is relayed to the PIO. “Ok, guys, we’ve got to cut this short,” Schlorer said. “There’ll be another briefing at approximately 3 o’clock.” They PIO and SAR member turned and quickly walked away.
“Ok, start prepping your notes,” Edens told the reporters. “You’re going to do probably at least a 30 second standup. You need to tell us what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re waiting to find out. So think about what you’re going to say, set up your shot, and then I’ll come around and we’ll do them one by one.”
A couple of practice runs was all they had time for. As they went over their notes, radio transmissions streamed in from the field. “We found ’em,” a voice reported. Almost immediately, Edens called out to one of the teams, “Station calling. Channel 6 we need your standup. We’re going in 30 seconds.”
Volz and Pintado made some last-second checks on the camera equipment. “Make sure you level the tripod,” Pintado said. A quick adjustment, then both moved back into position. “Sound check!” Volz directed.
“Ten seconds. Nine, eight, seven, six, let’s see you record, five, four, three, two, pcount….”
“This is Corey Pintado on location….”
Ryan West and Alix Tiegs transfer written notes to a phone after a press briefing.
And that’s how the rest of the afternoon went. Contrary to the earlier radio report, it seemed that the missing woman and child had not been found after all. The day got hotter, the humidity got higher, the gusts of wind got stronger. There were more press briefings, more questions, more listening, more “live” reports back to the station.
Then word came that the missing were found. It was confirmed. The reporters grabbed their cameras and moved to a new location, a better vantage point to shoot footage of the scene unfolding in front of them. The woman was combative…the child was unresponsive…he was being loaded onto a stretcher. As the emergency vehicle brought them back to the command center, the reporters ran ahead filming. One final press briefing and the drill was over.
The SAR team had finished their job – now it was time for the reporters to finish theirs. Edens escorted them to one of the Johnson County Department of Emergency Management trailers. “I think we have a semi-cool place for you guys to start editing,” she said as she led them inside. “You need to turn the best package that you can by 4:30. We’re going to try to do a quick debrief by 5.”
As the reporters got set up, Edens explained that if they were reporting for a television station during this incident, not only would they have had to do their live cut-ins, they would also need to have something ready for the 5 o’clock news. “Now they’re doing [those] packages, which includes voice-overs, what we call B-roll – video that visually proves what they’re talking about – or the sound bites,” she explained. “They have about an hour, which is what, if they were mobile journalists, that’s kind of what they’d have. They wouldn’t go back to the news department to file the piece. So it’s pretty real. I think this the most ‘real-world’ we’ve ever been able to make it.”
Thirty more minutes, and time was up. The video packages were to be turned in, ready or not. Everyone gathered at the command center for the debriefing. The SAR team members talked about the exercise, specifically about some of the off-the-wall radio traffic the students had heard. “We were throwing a lot of garbage out there on the radio,” Edens said.
What was the point of that? Why transmit a radio message intended to confuse?
Josh Johnston, Director of Johnson County Emergency Management explained. Any emergency scene can be chaotic, he said, especially in the early moments. Information comes at you from all directions. Some of it will be right, but some will be wrong. “The emergency responder-media relationship is vital, to both parties,” he added. “We depend greatly on the media to get out good information.”
“Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?” Edens asked the reporters.
“Oh yeah,” Pintado said with a sheepish grin. “Not report ’em found. Because I heard it – ‘We found ’em. We found ’em.'”
Edens smiled as she nodded her head. “That’s the prize,” she said. “That’s what we’re looking for, and they can use that in training now. Searchers get excited too, thinking they’ve got something, and they don’t.”
“What did you think of having to think on your feet and have to get that live standup so quickly?” she then asked.
“You have to be really on the scene,” Avalos said. “They might be saying something and you recorded something, but then the emergency truck went that way. They found them. I’m over here facing, run over there, make sure I have my cable, my camera, my audio, everything over there. It’s like you’re everywhere at the same time.”
As she watched the reporters pack their gear for the trip back to the studio, Edens was proud of how they had stepped up to the challenge. The drill was the kind of experience that only a handful of other college broadcasting programs offered, and it had perhaps been as close to “real” as a student reporter could ever hope to experience. It had given these reporters a unique opportunity to test themselves – to find out how well they had listened in the classroom; how well they knew the equipment; how their instincts as a reporter could find the story – a chance to test their professionalism.
“The exercise and the students have actually surpassed my hopes and expectations,” she said. “I credit the students for paying attention in class to what our goals were, and what they needed to try to do…both with their attention skills and with ad-libbing, and with their job of telling accurate stories to paint a picture. And also, their grit, in dealing with heat and things that are uncomfortable – dirty, the terrain is rough, there’s a lot going on, and I didn’t see one of them get frustrated. They were focused on what they were doing.”
16 people took place in a joint training drill for the Johnson, Logan, and Franklin County Search and Rescue teams, and students in Susan Edens’ broadcast journalism class. Back Row L-R: Susan Edens (Johnson and Franklin Co. SAR), Dana Phillips (Franklin Co. SAR), Ty Volz, Brent Cater (Johnson Co. SAR), Virgil Trimbach, Alix Tiegs, Ryan West, Corey Pintado, Josh Johnston (Johnson County Coordinator for the Department of Emergency Management), Klay Rowbotham (Johnson Co. SAR), James Hoy (Johnson Co. SAR) Front Row L-R: Andrea Avalos, Sean and Misty Ford (Misty is with Franklin Co. SAR), David Schlorer (Logan Co. SAR), DJ Baston.
Topics: Communication Studies