Thursday, December 3, 2009

When Political Opportunism and NIMS Collide

Could it be that Rudy Giuliani did emergency management and communications a great disservice? Particularly in a time when NIMS compliance is big and growing issue?

Ever since New York's Mayor became the calming, resolute face of massive emergency response in the hours and days after 9/11, you cannot be a savvy elected official and not see in any major public disaster the opportunity to shine. For sure, the cameras and satellite trucks will be there. The opportunity to show compassion, strength, resolve and command of the situation provides the basis to rescue a failing administration or put some shine on an already stellar political career. Who could resist such an opportunity?

And what is the problem with that? Certainly the public urgently if not desperately needs the reassurance and physical presence that only a strong, calming leader can provide. The problem is NIMS compliance.

A fundamental element of NIMS is Command responsibility for and authority over the public information released during a multi-agency event. The appropriate spokespeople for the event are those who are making the decisions that are saving people's lives or property and restoring the community to some form of normalcy. Mayors and county judges or executives are not normally incident commanders.

It's a critical issue for PIOs, particularly in a JIC environment when they are coming from multiple different jurisdictions and agencies and have clear operating policies from their agency heads. The policy is usually don't say anything without my approval. And that if the TV cameras show up, it is to be the elected head who will stand on the courthouse steps and give the information.

A particularly egregious example of this situation destroying the communications in a major event was the commuter train crash in Washington DC. The mayor of DC took some very serious heat from the media for trying to be a Rudy in this case and from PIOs from the responding agencies because he ordered them to not do their job and communicate with the public. He wanted to be the spokesperson for the entire event--and in doing so considerably botched the communications.

I know this is a contentious subject and one that causes lots of heartburn for PIOs who try to walk the line between NIMS compliance and keeping their jobs. But the message needs to start getting through to elected officials: NIMS compliance means that it is the Incident Command or Unified Command who is responsible for the public information--not the most senior elected official in the area. Certainly there can and should be room for the calming, commanding presence of an elected leader, but to restrict communicators operating in a JIC and expect them to conform to agency policy when they are in a multi-agency response is wrong and asking for trouble.

The federal government has said that failure to follow NIMS could put reimbursement dollars at stake. That's a mighty big club. But like any club, it only becomes useful when it is used once in a while. It would be interesting to see how this situation changed if the feds decided to make their threats real and enforce the requirement to keep public information under control of Command.


  1. You touch on a critical point. All PIOs and crisis communicators, especially those who work for government agencies (like me !) have to be fully aware of the political components of our roles.

    Political considerations will always play a role and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Here in Ontario, we're very fortunate to have a political class at the higher levels, that understand the need for operational independence for emergency managers and that includes PIOs or those responsible for emergency information.

    There's usually agreement between the public service/professional emergency managers side and the political element.

    Once the broad strokes of a response have been agreed upon (preferably in advance of a crisis or disaster) ... we have the latitude we need to implement our comms response ...

    that's due in great part to the "education" done with senior politicians on emergency management and the incident management systems.

    That's encouraging ... not always as fast as we'd like but the process usually works ...

    Now, that's our experience here within the provincial government ... but one key lesson, don't overlook the importance of liaising and educating the political class on emergency management, including providing information to audiences during a crisis or disaster.

  2. Actually, if you revisit your ICS-400 course materials (2008 version), Unit 5 - Multi-Agency Coordination Systems, you will note beginning on slide number 23, the overall "Public Information functions must be coordinated and integrated across all levels of government and with the public sector."

    In a situation where there are multiple Incident Commanders - an incident complex or Area Command - in incidents where the Type is classified at a 2 or 1, the concept of the IC being responsible for Public Information through the PIO in the Command System is impossible.

    The Federal NIMS document, page 29 states “In a large-scale operation, the on-scene PIO serves as a field PIO with links to the Joint Information Center (JIC), which is typically collocated with the Federal, regional, State, local, or tribal EOC tasked with primary incident coordination responsibilities. The JIS provides the mechanism for integrating public information activities among JICs, across jurisdictions, and with private-sector and nongovernmental organizations.”

    Additionally, the FEMA Basic Guidance for PIOs document states that "all information in the FIELD must be cleared by the IC prior to release". However, if the jurisdiction rules or code state that the PIO or spokesperson for the jurisdiction is a member other than the assigned PIO in the IC structure, then those local statutes apply.

    The job of the PIO is much like the job of the EM Coordinator during a major or catastrophic incident in that they are to liaise with all appropriate staff in order to provide coordination and support to all areas of the operation. The PIO in each of the ICS structures must ensure that the information they share within the JIS conforms to the expectations of their Incident/Unified Command staff. This does not mean that the IC approval is not integral but rather they are a member of an entire team responsible for public information.

    One of the reasons that Mr. Guiliani was so successful as a spokesperson following the 2001 incident is because he trained for years to be the spokesperson for his jurisdiction.

    If all elected officials took their charge as the individual ultimately responsible that seriously, they may be equally skilled should the need arise in their jurisdiction. Regardless of their training, we must be prepared to support them as the spokesperson for the jurisdiction since all of our authorities are delegated from them and they are ultimately responsible for all activities within the jurisdiction.