Cam McAlpine: How a small-town fire chief delivered hope and optimism to a community under fire

Opinion: Jason Brolund admitted his own fears and weaknesses. By doing so, he helped calm fears and anxieties. Created trust. And, in the process, provided a master class in communicating effectively during an emergency.

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When West Kelowna Fire Chief Jason Brolund stepped up to the microphone to provide an update on the McDougall Creek wildfire on Aug. 18, there were tears in his eyes and a tremor in his voice.

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It was the first of about a dozen daily news briefings Brolund would give after the fire, a natural disaster that would ultimately claim over 300 structures and impact the lives of tens of thousands of residents of the idyllic Okanagan Valley.

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“It was a devastating night last night,” Brolund began. “Probably one of the toughest of my career. It was one of the most challenging nights of firefighting in our history … it was like 100 years of firefighting all at once.”

Anyone who has been through a significant crisis will tell you the most important focus should be on the health, safety and well-being of people, property and community. But they will also tell you that it’s also critical to communicate about the crisis to ensure people impacted have the information they need.

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Brolund’s daily news briefings became must-watch video. Whether livestreamed, viewed on YouTube, X (Twitter) or picked up by news outlets around the world, hundreds of thousands of people watched Brolund as he served up the facts of the fire wrapped in a blanket of stories featuring tragedy, heroism and sacrifice.

Whether they were watching from a hotel room in downtown Kelowna after being evacuated from their home, or from their living room in the relative safety of Prince George or Vancouver, British Columbians became captivated by this self-deprecating and approachable man speaking to them from his heart.

When there are so many individuals doing the same job — providing emergency operations updates — what was it about Brolund that set him apart? Brolund was a lot like your favourite uncle. Friendly, non-threatening, no real hard edges.

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And boy, could he spin a good yarn.

Brolund is a natural storyteller. While most emergency communicators stick to the facts, sticking to the well-trodden message track, Brolund wandered all over the narrative map. He told people how bad it really was. He admitted his own fears and weaknesses. And he asked for patience and forbearance.

By doing so, he disarmed the audience. Helped calm their fears and anxieties. Created trust. And, in the process, provided a master class in communicating effectively during an emergency.

Here is what Brolund taught us about communicating effectively under fire:

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Provide as much information as you’re able as soon as you’re able. Focus on essential information. Keep it short, simple and understandable. Don’t sugar-coat. Share what you know when you know it. Include what to expect in the future.

Brolund: “There was a significant number of structures that were lost last night, and we’re going to do our best to improve that, and take it from ‘significant’ to a number that means more to people. We’re also going to do our best to get people back to their homes. But that’s not going to happen quickly, either of those things … We’re going to prepare for it to be worse, and we ask the public to do the same.”

Paint a picture. Help your audience understand the gravity of the situation using all five senses. You may need to convince your audience to do something they disagree with. They need to understand the ‘why’, and trust that you have their best interests at heart. The only way you can achieve that is to make them pay attention, and to bring them into the fire with you.

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Brolund: “Last night, I joined my men and women on the ground at about 2 a.m. and we undertook one of the biggest firefights I’ve ever been a part of. Night turned to day because of the orange glow of the clouds from the fire. The firefighters who fought that fire held that ground, they saved homes too numerous to list and I’m incredibly proud of the work that was done.”

Be honest and transparent — even when you don’t know the answer. Straightforward communication that acknowledges gaps in information, but commits to filling those gaps, builds trust and credibility.

Brolund: “We knew that it was going to be bad. This is what we planned for and what we practised for, but it was exponentially worse than we had expected. We may have another scary night tonight. People are going to see that glow again and it’s going to look worse than you ever expected. But know that we’re there.”

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Demonstrate empathy. In addition to expressing your own vulnerability, acknowledge the vulnerability in others. Your audience will be feeling a broad range of emotions. Make a connection with them. Let them know you understand and, more importantly, that you care and can empathize.

Brolund: “I’m still out of my house, as is my family. I’m feeling the same things you guys are. I’m running out of underwear, too, folks. I get it.”

Say please. And thank you. You’re going to be asking people to do things for you. To trust you. To have patience. Your mom was right: You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Try asking instead of telling. And express gratitude.

Brolund: “It leads me to want to thank the public for their outpouring of support. It really is the fuel that keeps us all going. Being able to read your comments and the cards that you’ve dropped off and see the signs outside the firehall is what fuels my men and women as well as all of the men and women who are involved.

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“On a lighter note, I do want to say, I’m doing fine for underwear.”

Cam McAlpine is a principal at Earnscliffe Strategies and past-president of the Canadian Public Relations Society. McAlpine is based in Kelowna.

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