Bird’s Eye View Photos Brings Disaster and Recovery Into Focus
By Jennifer Finch, Communications Director for Weld County Colorado and NACIO 2nd Vice President
Photos by Santa Barbara Public Works Department as part of their entry in the 2019 Photography Category
It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words. The Santa Barbara (CA) Public Works team may argue that it’s worth is much, much more – especially if it’s a picture taken by a drone.
Following the Thomas Fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres in December of 2017, and a subsequent debris flow in 2018, the public works team was faced with enormous task of emergency response, data sharing, resident relationship building and misinformation mitigation on top of infrastructure rebuilding. Tasks all made simpler by photos and videos taken with the county’s drone.
“The drone captured media and could distribute it immediately through text or email,” wrote Lael Wageneck, Public Information Officer for the Santa Barbara Public Works Department, in his 2019 Awards of Excellence entry form for the Photography category. “The photographs and video provided images that were more descriptive than pictures taken from the ground.
“While local government has used drones for public safety or to capture footage for marketing campaigns, our program is innovative in its use of the technology for infrastructure repair and maintenance. Two staff Environmental Planners use drones to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of their work. The department’s Public Information Officer uses photographs and video for public outreach and media relations.”
In fact, footage from the drone allowed the department to quickly tell the story of disaster and recovery to not only county residents but also to the Federal Government.
“Photography and videos of infrastructure taken before and after every storm provided compelling visual evidence that showed regulatory agencies, FEMA, and other partners where maintenance work was needed and to what extent it was performed,” wrote Wageneck.
While documentation of the disaster was essential for the department, the drone coverage proved to be extremely helpful to the public and media as well. And as any public information officer knows, compelling communication is often the make-it or break-it line between the public viewing government projects as a success or a failure.
“Photos and video posted on social and traditional media channels and online neighborhood groups educated the public on the work going on in their community. Reactions to these posts were extremely positive, and account likes and follows increased with each post. Social media posts with drone footage achieved over five times the reach and reactions of an average post,” explained Wageneck. “Our most popular post of the effects of a debris flow that closed State Highway 154 achieved a reach of 7,300 and received 368 reactions and 77 shares. Television news also used drone footage shared on social media for their daily broadcasts.”
The ability to show the public what is happening in their community, especially in areas they themselves may not have access to, is a great way to build a relationship with constituents. In fact, the drone work done by the Santa Barbara Public Work team was so effective, Wageneck delivered a presentation that outlined the replicability of this program (“How to Create Your Own Agency Air Force”) at the 2018 California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO) annual conference.
Wondering how much it would cost to implement a similar program for your county? Wageneck explained that for his team the costs are relatively low. “The total cost for the drone is around $1,500 and the cost to license a staff pilot is $150 every two years. The cost of each flight is relative to staff time. Flights can last between 10-30 minutes.”