Last December, as the largest wildfire in state history raged through the hills of Southern California, destroying homes and habitat and claiming lives, Alex Eisenhart ’16 was called in to shed light on the flames.
Eisenhart, a communications coordinator for the San Mateo County Health System, was sent 300 miles south to Santa Barbara County to help disseminate crucial information to county residents, many of whom were being asked to evacuate their homes in the path of the Thomas Fire.
“This was definitely more focused on crisis communications [than my regular job],” said Eisenhart, who was at the Santa Barbara County Emergency Operations Center for a weeklong rotation through a reciprocal agreement between public safety agencies. Eisenhart spent the week cranking out press releases, updating social media, announcing new evacuation zones, and creating videos to keep residents informed and prepared.
Most of the videos he made told people what they need to know when they evacuate or when they return home. He would fill people in on new developments with the fire, and try to give them a little insight into what decisions were being made and why.
But some of his work was focused on law enforcement personnel themselves. During a wildfire, people view firefighters as heroes, Eisenhart said, but law enforcement officers were becoming the targets of residents’ fear and frustration.
“In Santa Barbara, there was a lot of frustration at the time with local law enforcement, because the only time they saw their faces was during a roadblock. They’re the face of, ‘Sorry, you can’t get in your driveway,’” Eisenhart said.
In one video Eisenhart made, he rides around with Sgt. Mark Williams of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.
As the viewer drives through city streets and rural roads of Santa Barbara and Montecito, Williams points out areas of charred scrub or deep orange patches of Phos-Chek, a fire retardant dropped on the flames. He shows Eisenhart a car parked in the middle of a large lawn by its owner, who was trying to keep it away from any fire fuel. And he tells the camera about the calls his department gets and how they try to help.
The video aims to show that “these are real people and they’re just trying to do their best,” Eisenhart said.
Eisenhart’s boss at the San Mateo County Health System Communications Office, Diana Rohini LaVigne, said Eisenhart was recognized for his service during the Thomas Fire.
“We were proud to have Alex representing San Mateo County in this time of crisis, where communications expertise is so critical to the health and safety of those affected by a disaster,” Rohini LaVigne said in an email.
Eisenhart first got a glimpse of the power of telling stories as a high school student involved in various LGBTQ advocacy groups. When Eisenhart began studying film at Emerson, he assumed he’d leave school and head to New York or Hollywood, because “that just seemed to be the thing to do with that degree,” but as he went through the Visual and Media Arts program, other possibilities began to come into focus.
“It became really clear to me that visual storytelling and multimedia are really powerful tools in having a positive impact on a community,” Eisenhart said. “That really is consistent with my journey toward wanting to be a storyteller.”
After graduation, Eisenhart went back to his native Bay Area (“All due respect to Boston, the East Coast is not for me.”), where he struggled to find a job. A former high school teacher suggested he apply for the San Mateo County position, which had a “little bit of everything,” including writing, social media, and multimedia.
“I felt very lucky to be able to start my career here,” he said.
Eisenhart said the work he did in Santa Barbara was a collaborative effort between communications people, first responders, and community members. He said he’s now gravitating toward a career in the public sector, where he’ll be able to make a positive impact on the lives of people.
“Working [in San Mateo] for just a year, it has been eye opening, just the breadth of services and genuine good this department does for our community,” Eisenhart said, “and people aren’t necessarily going to know that unless there’s a good story behind it, and unless that story’s shared.”