TWINSBURG — Assistant Fire Chief Steve Bosso, a public information officer in different capacities for 25 years, is no stranger to emergencies — or of informing the public during those times.
He knows how to warn people in harm’s way.
As such, Bosso joined a team of PIOs under contract with South Carolina as Hurricane Florence was bearing down on the east coast last month. The request was part of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact, a standing agreement between all 50 states, Bosso said.
"It’s basically mutual aid between states," he said. "The communications director for the State of South Carolina Emergency Management Division asked for me personally [to assist]."
Bosso and South Carolina’s communications director, Derrec Becker, attended FEMA/Emergency Management Institute’s Master PIO program together in January.
"Derrec knew my skill set," Bosso said. He was the only PIO from Summit County deployed to South Carolina, adding there were two dive teams from Ohio who also answered the call.
Bosso said after he received the blessings from Chief Tim Morgan and Mayor Ted Yates to go to the stricken state.
"They wanted me down there ahead of the hurricane," he said.
Bosso checked into his hotel at 4 a.m. Sept. 14 and reported to work at 10 a.m. in Columbia, S.C. That was his shortest day, he said, as after that followed a slog of 12-hour days for the next two weeks. He worked in the state’s Joint Information Center.
"This is a place where anyone with a ‘dog in the hunt’ sends their PIO to coordinate messaging," he said.
Other agencies included transportation, health, military, law enforcement and fire/EMS. The JIC is considered Emergency Support Function 15 in the National Response Framework, a FEMA/DHS system that oversees response coordination at local, state and federal levels, he explained.
Bosso said all but one day of his two-week assignment was spent indoors, issuing media releases, posting regular weather updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and producing public service announcement videos.
"A lot of it was social media work," he said, "and media releases coordinated with the governor’s office."
On his second day he was assigned the position of JIC manager and was responsible for attending all high level chiefs’ meetings every morning, giving shift updates to their Emergency Operations Center and helping to coordinate messaging with all other ESFs, affected counties, the governor’s office and FEMA.
Other duties included help arrange press conference, check-in and the escort of media on site and on the military/media flyover of the affected areas. He also created social media products, infographics and PSAs, and he ensured a sign language interpreter was present and in-frame at all times for press conferences.
"I also kept the JIC’s candy dish full and made sure our work area was clean at the end of shift," he said.
"It was a weird hurricane because it was slow coming it and it was slow dumping rain," he said. "After it dumped all that rain we waited four days for all the water to come down, the floods. It was kind of unique."
Bosso said his team posted five to six messages a day on social media the first week. During the second week, the number of message per day increased to 22.
"Where to get help, don’t drive through the barricades, don’t go in the water because of mosquitoes and mold, how to donate, how to volunteer — all these things," he said. He said he learned each social media platform had a different type of audience. People on Twitter like a lot of emojis, and Instagram followers tend to be younger than the majority of people on Twitter and Facebook.
People like fresh updates with new graphics, too, he added. Bosso said he liked filming the PSAs because he was able to use the same room where the state press conference were held. It was equipped with professional lighting, he said. He also got to meet the governor of South Carolina, but he said the "neatest" part was riding in a Blackhawk helicopter with the media.
"That was like a four or five hour day," he said, "but most of the time I was in a window-less building in a glass cage with all the other hundreds of people doing their thing."
Bosso said his his assignment was "stressful" and "daunting" at first because he only knew one person there. "But by the time I was done I left with a lot of lasting friendships and professional contacts," he said.
He said during a conversation with South Carolina Emergency Management District Director Kim Stensen, on Bosso’s second day, the director paid him "the ultimate compliment when he said, ‘I thought you worked for me.’ He was very impressed with my work."
Bosso said it was difficult to process the destruction during the flyover.
"When we started flying above these areas, at first we saw a barn under water, and a farm house, but then we saw a Circle K flooded, and a church. It wasn’t a huge town, but it was a town, nonetheless, just flooded out. Everything they had was flooded. That was difficult," he said.
He said he didn’t see any people or animals stranded.
Bosso said there was no way to measure how many lives this team saved, but if one person heeded the warnings to not drive around a barricade, he did his job.
"We started seeing the questions tail off in the second week," he said. "We were like, ‘They’re getting it. They’re getting the messages.’ People were sharing and retweeting our messages."