For the past several years, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (RMA) has been a model environmental cleanup program for the Department of Defense. A site setting new standards for cooperative problem solving between the private and public sector and the stakeholders they serve. As cleanup smoothly progressed, people had few reasons to recall the site’s Cold War purpose as a chemical weapons manufacturing plant. But on Oct. 16, 2000, that changed. During routine cleanup of a scrap yard, U.S. Army contractors found a grapefruit-size bomblet filled with Sarin. That frightening specter fast became a reality for the more than 2 million residents of metro Denver. And when five additional bomblets were uncovered by mid-November, RMA’s status as a national model and its future as the country’s premier urban wildlife refuge were overshadowed by conflict and fear. In addition, the state of Colorado began publicly feuding with the Army over jurisdiction and technology selection for the safe destruction of the six bomblets. This charged political atmospheres added more confusion to an already fearful public.
Dec. 1, 2000, Governor Bill Owens and his staff selected a new airtight explosive device technology, successfully tested to destroy Sarin just two weeks earlier, after meeting with General John Coburn, commander of the US Army Materiel Command and reviewing five disposal options. It took only six weeks to build the mobile chemical demilitarization plant needed to house the equipment and the bomblets. Once up, the six bomblets were destroyed in 10 days. Phase II of the project will be the excavation of the scrap yard and the destruction of any additional bomblets found.
The Army’s challenge was to assure the safety of the community, on-site workers and the destruction team; restore trust and credibility with elected officials and the public; and to keep its long-term relationships with the regulatory agencies from totally unraveling. To achieve this, it was essential for the Army to establish itself as the experts in chemical weapons destruction in the minds of the public, elected officials and the media while calming worker and community fears. Local Army representatives knew it was essential to maintain its relationship with the state while balancing the needs of senior Army officials as different divisions became involved in every aspect of the bomblets destruction.
RESEARCH, PLANNING & OBJECTIVES
Planning process-Upon the signing of the RMA’s Record of Decision in 1996, a comprehensive contingency plan including communications strategies was developed. When the bomblet crisis arose, we turned to the plan as the communications guide. It had worked for minor issues in the past. We were soon to learn that times had changed and instantaneous communication was wanted. We quickly reworked our communication strategy to cover the 3 ½ months of Phase 1 of this emergency. This new strategy dove-tailed into the site’s comprehensive communications program. RMA’s key audiences include residents and businesses within a four-mile radius, elected officials, media, emergency responders, healthcare providers, site advisory groups, business and civic leaders, employees and headquarters for the Army, US Fish and Wildlife Service and Shell Oil Company, the organizations conducting the RMA remediation.
Objectives- (These objectives also served as the basis for our message platform.)
Inform the community as quickly as possible of breaking news at the site to preempt rumors;
Inform and educate stakeholders about the Army’s comprehensive bomblet destruction plan and extensive safety measures throughout the crisis;
Reassure stakeholders and the community that the Army is the expert in safe chemical weapons destruction and that public and worker safety is the Army’s primary concern; and
Restore or maintain trust and credibility with stakeholders by the end of Phase 1.
Research- Even though the presidential election held the majority of media attention, the RMA bomblet story received daily coverage by every major media outlet in the state, with it eventually going national. Every activist ever involved at the site reentered the picture. They accused the Army of keeping the Sarin a secret, hiding the truth about its deadly impact from the public and that the community was in a panic. Some state officials echoed these sentiments and politicians began posturing. These allegations were counter to what the Army was hearing from neighbors. To find out the facts, the Army conducted a telephone survey in December, six weeks after the crisis began. More than 500 adult residents living in communities adjacent to the site said the Army continued to maintain extremely high credibility ratings (85% favorable), even in light of the discovery of the bomblets. Information gathered from the survey was used to craft messages and to further refine our communications strategies.
Because the Army and state did not agree on the selected disposal technology, the standard communication strategy of joint communication with the regulators was changed. It was decided that the Army would tell its own story and put the best scientific facts out to the public. If others wanted to dispute that information they could do so. The main objective was to provide as complete information as possible as quickly as possible. Though media relations and direct mail pieces would continue to play a critical role in educating the public about the issue, they took a back seat to technology when conveying breaking/timely news.
- Automated prerecorded phone messages with critical updates were made to more than 31,000 neighbors seven times;
- The RMA website was updated daily with media releases/bulletins or technology fact sheets and the construction progress;
- E-mail updates were provided to nearly 300 residents;
- 100 people requested phone calls of any info updates;
- Three public meetings were held in neighboring communities. Meetings were held in partnership with members of the Colorado Congressional delegation, city council representatives and citizen groups. Technology displays, power point presentations, informational flyers, and Army and regulator representatives were on hand;
- Responsiveness summaries were mailed to attendees that answered questions posed at each meeting;
- Spanish translators were made available for non-English speaking residents;
- Provided bomblet briefing to 150 primarily Spanish-speaking residents in nearby community that was translated into Spanish. Provided background materials that had been translated into Spanish,
- Updated information bulletins were hand-delivered to nearly 500 homes that border RMA and mailed to 40,000 homes and businesses three times. In addition, 5,000 flyers were given to area businesses for distribution, i.e., the local Wal-Mart distributed several thousand flyers three times;
- Two telephone lines were set-up to provide up-to-date information. Callers could speak with a representative or leave their contact information so that the Army could continually provide them with updated information by phone, fax or e-mail;
- RMA publications were mailed to 45,000 people.
- Television, print and radio interviews were conducted almost daily;
- Media training was provided to select Army spokespersons;
- Four press conferences were coordinated on-site to provide key milestone updates usually attended by Army commanders, Congressional delegation and local elected officials. B-roll footage and still photos provided media because the bomblets were in a highly restricted area;
- Editorial board briefings and on air TV interviews were set up with Major General John Doesberg explaining the selected technology.
- Elected Official/Influential Relations
- Before information was released to the media or public, elected officials, the agencies and members of the RMA’s community advisory board received face-to-face, faxed or telephone briefings;
- An open house was held for elected officials, agencies and media to view and learn more about the Explosive Destruction System, the chosen method for destroying the bomblets;
- All elected officials met with senior Army representatives and received extensive briefings and on-site tours;
- Co-hosted public meetings and provided talking points for Sen. Allard and Rep. DeGette during press conferences.
- Highly ranked Army officials and other departments of the Army were briefed daily on technical and public affairs efforts. In addition, briefing books were provided to visiting Generals and staff;
- The 700 RMA employees and contractors attended four internal “town hall” meetings to ask questions and learn more about the situation;
- Employees received almost daily broadcast messages on voicemail in order to stay apprised of new developments;
- Employees were able to access the weekly intranet publication, “Inside RMA” for updated information.
At the height of the crisis, research conducted showed that communications efforts proved effective in managing the level of concern among neighbors. The survey found:
- Nearly universal awareness of the bomblets among nearby residents did not result in safety concerns;
- Sixty-nine percent of the community members said they did not need additional information about the bomblets, while less than one-third (31%) said they did; and
- Arsenal neighbors were confident that the Army would effectively dispose of the bomblets found at the RMA.
Trust and credibility significantly improved throughout the crisis. This transition is evident in how the media reported the crisis, statements made by the public and elected officials and the partnerships developed or reestablished due to inclusion and strengthened relationships. (Please see media tracking chart on next page)
The RMA received “atta boy” letters from members of the Congressional delegation complementing it on a superb communication effort;
Colorado Senator Wayne Allard presented the RMA with a US flag that had flown over the capitol in recognition for a superb effort in dealing with this crisis including keeping the public well informed;
The Denver Post’s final editorial illustrates the effect this communication program had on this difficult community crisis that could have set the Arsenal back 15 years in its community relationships. This crisis was handled in a way where the relationships are intact and, in some cases, stronger than ever before.