Editor’s notebook: The night when Sedgwick MS burned down

… and how the real story emerged on social media

Many South Kitsap social media devotees were glued to their screens the night of Jan. 10 with increasing anxiety. The updated reports of a local disaster as described on Facebook were becoming increasingly direr.

Glancing at my smartphone at home in the 9 o’clock hour, I began searching for my reporter’s notebook and camera, making mental notes on how this horrible event might play out in our news coverage. As described in breathless detail on Facebook, the disaster would add to the trauma South Kitsap had suffered over the past 30 days with a damaging tornado. But now this: According to one post, Sedgwick Middle School, a vital community educational resource for the area’s young students, was burning to the ground.

A week later, we know it never happened. Except it did for a time, according to social media, that night.

Second-hand info

Did you ever play a classroom game in which kids stand in a line, and a student at one end whispers a message to the person next to him or her? The message is then quietly relayed down the line until the last person receives it, then announces what was heard to the class? Invariably, the message turns out to have been fundamentally distorted — sometimes to nonsensical extremes.

That’s what may have happened when some posters on Facebook’s Port Orchard group page began breathlessly reporting the unfolding events at the middle school. What initially was broadcast over the Kitsap emergency radio system, meant for South Kitsap Fire and Rescue crews and law enforcement, also funneled through various social media apps like PulsePoint. That particular app, like others, relays the barest of information, such as “Commercial Fire” and codes signifying fire units, fire stations and other details indecipherable to the general public.

Unfortunately, that information is only a piece of a complete picture.

While the information from those apps certainly helps folks determine what an emergency siren in their neighborhood signifies, it doesn’t, as explained in vintage broadcaster Paul Harvey language, tell “the rest of the story.”

On the night of the Sedgwick call, Facebook posts first made note of the many sirens that pierced the calm of the night. After a few minutes — enough time for folks to perhaps catch a glimpse of speeding fire trucks heading to the scene — social media posts became increasingly alarming. Flames were seen through a classroom’s windows, one wrote. A portion of the middle school had already been destroyed, said another. And, yes, the entire campus was fully involved and classes had been canceled indefinitely.

Again, none of it was true.

Those breathless social media reports prompted South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Faucett to post his own statement on Facebook the next morning, under the heading “What Happened at John Sedgwick Middle School Last Night?”

In it, Faucett provided a chronology of the events leading up to SKFR’s response that night:

First, fire units were dispatched to the school for a possible fire in the ceiling of a locker room. The call, he wrote, came from the eagle-eyed custodial staff who could smell smoke and feel heat emanating from some ceiling tiles. When units arrived, Faucett said firefighters found no smoke or any visible flames. To make sure, they used their thermal imaging cameras and discovered the locker room ceiling was between 250 and 270 degrees, certainly not normal or typical.

Faucett wrote that the ’80s-era school uses a radiant heat system through a portion of the campus. One of the system’s components apparently had overheated. School district electricians isolated the problem and turned off the power, making it safe for school to operate normally the next day.

In his post, the assistant chief assured readers that the school is equipped with fire alarm systems and has a fire sprinkler network that he said would have “done its job” should it have been necessary.

The social media kerfuffle also prompted Amy Miller, South Kitsap School District spokeswoman, to post a message downplaying the fire call the next morning on Facebook.

Faucett reminded the community that SKFR’s responded in full force to the call. “We don’t take these situations lightly. We are thankful that this incident was simple to correct and no damage was done. SKFR and SKSD work very well together to provide a safe environment for the students with the resources we have,” he added.

When asked about the social media reaction the next morning, Faucett was diplomatic about its impact on the community — good and bad.

“The great thing about social media is information is readily available to anyone who wants it. The bad thing about social media is information is readily available to anyone who wants it,” he said.

Which means: information sharing is wonderful and helpful, but when it is passed along and perhaps embellished or matched with unconfirmed, anecdotal hearsay, it can create unnecessary confusion and alarm.

Faucett also noted that radio scanner apps often capture just a portion of radio traffic between units that can be easily misinterpreted. And the instantaneous broadcasts often lure the curious to the scene, who sometimes become a neighborhood nuisance. Other times, gawkers get in the way of first responders who might be in tight places trying to save lives, with just minutes to do it.

On a positive note, though, Faucett praised the role social media plays during storm events, the most recent being the Port Orchard tornado last month.

“Social media plays a huge role in communicating with people. We need that, they need that [and] it helps the emergency system. We want to caution people [in making] a quick opinion or decision based on our initial dispatch information.”

For those who are glued to social media day or night for the latest news, that’s food for thought.