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The Joint Information Center: Inside Baltimore’s coronavirus communications effort

Baltimore officials, using lessons learned from the unrest of 2015, have established a central command post to disseminate information about the coronavirus pandemic that could save lives — tips about “social distancing” and washing your hands, changes to vital municipal services and the best ways to remain healthy.

It’s not easy, as information about the deadly respiratory disease and guidance from national and state officials about how best to mitigate its spread changes daily. But that’s exactly the point, leaders say.

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“One of the things that we’ve really pounded into our own heads over the last week is that we have to be sourcing our information as carefully as possible, because of the tremendous amount of misinformation that is out on the internet right now,” said Jeff Amoros, manager and point person for the city’s Joint Information Center, or JIC. “We want to make sure people are retweeting something from a trusted source, rather than something from a friend of a friend of a friend.”

This is what a pandemic looks like in the digital age, in a city with a disparate web of spokespeople and multiple layers of elected officials, where a state-ordered cap on large gatherings can drop from 250 people to 50 to 10 in a matter of days. Even if the message is changing at a rapid pace, those conveying it must be consistent, or risk contributing to chaos, officials said.

They learned that the hard way.

As looting and arson spread across Baltimore after the police custody death of Freddie Gray five years ago, Baltimore officials scrambled to send out a clear and concise message. But with information coming in from all directions, and no real plan to absorb it, sort it and send it back out to the public, they largely failed.

At the city’s Command Center, a lack of planning and organization resulted in poor communication internally and mixed messages going out to other agencies and the public, an independent review later found. At the State Emergency Operations Center, officials received such little information from official channels that they made important decisions based on misleading images from cable TV, a separate state report determined.

In the aftermath, city officials committed to making improvements based on lessons learned. And today, it’s paying dividends, they said.

“It’s the 2015 model on steroids,” Lester Davis, spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said of the city’s current approach to emergency communications. “It’s grown. It’s enhanced.”

At 7 a.m. Friday, when the city officially stood up its Emergency Operations Center, the JIC went up, too.

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“We operate in parallel with the EOC, so when the EOC is staffed, we’re staffed," Amoros said.

As the city health department’s senior director of external affairs, Amoros took the lead because the health department is running point on the overall city response. Staffing between the EOC and the JIC are being kept entirely separate, so as not to cross-contaminate two critical hubs if officials start falling sick.

Staffing the JIC are spokespeople from various city agencies, but also graphic designers, social media experts, public relations officials and community liaisons, “all of whom have experience in some aspect of messaging to the general public and with agency staff,” Amoros said.

In addition to professional communicators from major city agencies — such as Det. Jeremy Silbert, a longtime police spokesman — the staffing includes an assortment of other folks, including City Councilman Kristerfer Burnett.

As the representative of the council, Burnett’s job to make sure all the other council members get information they need for their constituents without “bombarding city agencies with requests.”

Instead, they all go to Burnett with questions, which he passes on, he said.

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When the JIC was first stood up, there were lots of logistics to handle around the communication network, stocking of food and water and the creation of a backup plan for a “digital JIC” in case teleworking became necessary. At one point earlier this week, a decision was made to move the entire operation from one space to another. (Officials like to keep the exact location secret, but it’s downtown.)

Otherwise, it has mostly been about the message.

JIC staff have created campaigns around hand washing and gathered and disseminated information letting kids out of school know they can collect meals at locations across the city. Some of their campaigns have captured national attention. On Thursday morning, the Baltimore Orioles tweeted out a city ad titled, “What You Need to Know About COVID-19," complete with tips for older residents and those with underlying health conditions and guidance for all residents on what to do if they feel sick.

Every 24 hours or so, the JIC crew, like everyone else, gets new information about the crisis, whether from Gov. Larry Hogan’s office or President Donald Trump or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some information, like the total number of Marylanders infected or the total number of people who can gather in one place, is rapidly changing.

Amoros said that a big part of the JIC’s mission has been to synthesize important public health messages in ways that will leave them accurate over time, though that’s not always possible.

“Anytime we put a specific number or specific piece of guidance, it has the chance of being invalidated within 24 to 48 hours,” Amoros said. “That’s the type of thinking we have to engage in.”

Silbert, the police spokesman who was around for the 2015 unrest, said the work is challenging, but the experience has been rewarding.

“This is so crucial, getting out this information,” he said. “It’s my opinion that this is truly saving lives, based off of the circumstances that we’re dealing with.”

Burnett agreed — citing a national goal to “flatten the curve,” or slow the rate of infections to buy the health system more time to prepare.

“We have seen a change in people’s behavior in the public, and that’s a good thing, because we know the messaging of social distancing is literally saving lives,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to be able to flatten the curve.”

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