Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Goodbye 2009--Hello 2010. What's Next?

We say goodbye to an interesting year in crisis and emergency management in 2009. I won't create my own list of the biggest stories, but a few that stand out in my mind are the H1N1 (aka swine flu), Flight 1549 in the Hudson, the missing hurricanes of 2009, United Airlines breaks guitars, and of course, Tiger Woods. But by far the biggest story in crisis communication and for that matter government communication was the emergence of social media as a critical element of organizations' communications and specifically the meteoric rise of Twitter.

But what about 2010? Prognostication is dangerous, but I'd like to suggest a few topics that I think will emerge into greater prominence in the coming year:

1) Mobility and Virtualization--lost in much of the hype about social media is the plain fact that most people are moving their communications and computing onto ever smaller and more mobile platforms. As I was playing an amazing dogfighting game on my iphone with my adult sons and son-inlaw over Christmas, I was amazed at the computing power we carry in our pockets. Much if not most web access is now through mobile devices, and those younger than me (an increasing percentage of the population) are ever more accustomed to getting whatever they want, whenever they want by reaching into their pockets or purses (or man bags). This means several important things for crisis communication. One is that more and more people will expect more information faster with more frequent updates than ever before. But more than that, web applications are making it easier and easier for teams to perform vital work together regardless of location. Collaboration tools emerging are truly amazing and the winners will be accessible via smartphones. Emergency managers and PIOs alike need to get serious about planning how to operate outside of the EOCs and JICs. The H1N1 pandemic should teach us that--getting people together to tell people not to get together doesn't make sense. And it certainly doesn't when tools make it possible to operate efficiently without congregating.

2) Warnings. We have seen a tremendous increase in the variety of technologies available to warn people of dangers. Yet, for all that is available, little is in use or usable. I expect in 2010 to see several major events where the big issues coming out of them will be this question of victims: why weren't we warned? Analysts and cable pundits will make it clear the systems are there that make it possible. We will see a Virginia Tech or two in the general public sphere that will have similar impact on emergency management. Related to this is the emerging issue of Special Needs. While much lip service is being paid to the idea that our emergency management and communication procedures need to above all protect the most vulnerable, little that I see has been done to implement comprehensive solutions. I suspect it will also take a major national news story that will prompt legislation and exploitive politicians to really wake up the emergency management community to this concern.

3) Bottom up attention. I've had the opportunity of working with both major federal agencies and a lot of state, local, municipal and regional government agencies on crisis and emergency communications. So much of the media's and the public's attention seems to be top down. We tend to expect all the best thinking and solutions to come from DC. This is a little strange since one of the common understandings of crisis events is that all are local. The truth is from my perspective that real solutions are emerging on a bottom-up basis. There is too little substantive discussion between the top and the bottom. One telling example is ESF15--the plan promulgated by FEMA and DHS which unfortunately is not only completely different but contradictory to the way crisis communication and JIC operations are done in the real world experienced by most of us. The NRT JIC Model is by far the best tool agency communicators have and it is being tested and proven in the real world each and every day. Trying to put the JIC model with ESF15 is like trying to create an efficient vehicle by putting an oxcart and a Ferrari together. It is my fond hope that 2010 sees some substantive communication between the federal and state and local agencies around the issue of fast, efficient and proven communication management and technologies.

4) Public and private partnerships. One of the subcurrents of conversation in 2009 is the importance of the private sector in emergency management and community resilience. It starts with the citizen and preparing and empowering them to be part of the solution. But increasingly I see attention being paid by Departments of Emergency Management on how they can incorporate and leverage the resources and expertise that exists in the private sector. It reminds me of one academic study coming out of Katrina that pointed to two organizations that performed superbly in that event: The US Coast Guard and Walmart. From logistics, to management expertise, to direct communication with employees, private companies need to be pulled into the issue of community resilience. This will become even more urgent as public expectations about preparedness and response effectiveness rise while governments continue to fight enormous budget problems. There is a solution--it is in outsourcing. Everything from the inventories of resources needed to the management expertise needed to come in and fully manage large-scale responses. I expect we will see much more discussion this year about best practices related to government response agencies connecting with and coordinating with private companies. It will be a good thing for all of us.

Hey, I just noticed I'm pretty optimistic! Happy New Year everyone.

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