Monday, September 27, 2010

Recovering from disaster--the Galveston way

On September 12, 2008 Galveston and the Houston region were hit with one of the most severe and destructive hurricanes in history--Ike. Many comments have been made, including by me, that reflect high admiration for the people, government leaders and responders who had to deal with this event. They showed remarkable strength and resilience.

But now Galvestonians are leading the way with showing us that resilience includes knowing how to recover. And that means celebrating your survival, endurance, strength and resilience. Here's the official video of the Galveston Flash Mob.

Now this kind of thing doesn't happen without some leadership and leadership is the key to resilience. Kitty Allen, a valued client, provided the spark needed to get this going. Here's what she wrote in an email about how this all came about:

I just thought it might be appropriate for Galvestonians, at least, to stop for about 5 minutes and celebrate how FAR we have actually come in 2 short years! Seems to me folks don't celebrate their successes enough and often choose to dwell on the glass half-empty....which is far from inspiring or motivating. Not being a super-slick, professional dancer routine, we wanted to demonstrate that while we might not all be 'in sync,' we ARE working together, going in the same general direction..and with our own individual style!

So, I emailed the Mayor with a quick "Do you think I'm nutz?" communication, explained the concept and included examples of flash mobs around the world...He "got it" immediately and encouraged me to "go for it" we did.

Congratulations Kitty, Mr. Mayor, and all you brave Galvestonians. You not only taught us how to endure an event like this with great courage and strength, now you are teaching us how to recover!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Who should manage a spill like the Gulf Spill?

It's really not so surprising that some elected officials seem to think they could have run the spill better than Unified Area Command. Some actors seem to think they could have done better as well. But what is very sad and surprising is that members of Congress seem to agree with them. At last according to this article from

Here's what Louisiana's St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro told a congressional hearing:

"Louisiana law specifically states and grants emergency powers to the local authorities during times of declared disasters," Taffaro said in testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee. But, he said, "instead of embracing the local authorities' involvement and resource capacity, local authority was met with resistance, exclusion and power struggles."

The Deputy National Incident Commander Peter Neffenger correctly explained how the system works under OPA 90, ICS and NIMS. This was a spill of national significance under the direction of the National Incident Commander, Adm. Thad Allen. Unified Command, from the first hours of the response included BP under the direction of the Federal On-Scene Coordinator. I'm not sure about all the organization and changes in this response, but I am very aware that in all drills and events I have been involved in included a state agency as the State On-Scene Coordinator and a local response agency as the Local On-Scene Coordinator. They all formed Unified Command. Obviously all local agencies cannot participate in the ultimate decisions--it would be a nightmare, But they would coordinate their interests through the LOSC who does sit in Unified Command as a representative of local interests. If local representation was not included, it was not because of the lack of that in the plan, it was a failure in execution.

Kevin Costner testifying to Congress about response leadership is essentially a hoot. Are these Congress members so publicity hungry that they invite him in order to get the press there? No wonder their approval ratings suggests only friends and family would vote for them. I don't know how Mr. Costner's machines that were leased or acquired by BP at considerable cost actually worked. I'd like to see a study. But it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume they didn't work but BP bowed to public and political pressure in spending this money.

So, response community, do you think that Billy Nungesser should have been given control of the response? Do you think, as one Republican representative suggests, that the government should develop all the advanced technologies and expertise that decades of experience that BP brought to this event? And would this produce better results than the current system that provides a collaboration with private industry under the absolute supervision of the federal government?

I'm sounding like a stuck record, but clearly the lack of understanding of NIMS-ICS among our elected officials and press corp is a major national problem. If it is not addressed and soon, we risk losing a system that works in exchange for one that will further complicate and encumber what is already a very great challenge. In my opinion, NIMS is worth fighting for--but we have an uphill climb.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Are the Media Your Partners in Emergency Communication

A couple of years ago I presented at a major conference on crisis and risk communications and several of the highly respected speakers talked about the need to "partner with the media" in communicating with the public about major events. My under the breath reaction was: good luck with that.

Since I got engaged in this crisis and emergency communication business fulltime over ten years ago one of my strongest beliefs has been that we need to first of all focus on direct communication to those people who are most impacted by an event and those whose opinions about us matter most for our future. One of the reasons for that firm belief was my experience in trying to "partner with the media" and the disastrous results that sometimes, very often occurred. In fact, I would have guess that about half of all efforts were disappointing if not outright infuriating.

Now the highly respected firm of Burson-Marsteller has documented this experience. This, in my mind, is one of the most important studies to come out about media relations in general but crisis communication in particular. I would advise a careful look at this study. I haven't looked at the mechanics of the study so can't comment on the way it was done and how solid it is, but I can tell you that it conforms to my own experiences.

For those who want the headline version, if you send your important messages to the media, at best you can expect 50% consistency with your message and what the media actually does with it. But that is better than what happens with it in the blog world, where the consistency drops down to less than 40%.

The implications are clear and should be part of every PIO and emergency manager's information strategy:
1) Go direct--plan ahead of any event to communicate directly through email, phone, text, website, whatever to the public, impacted citizens, elected officials, investors, customers, fenceline neighbors--anybody who is important to your future.
2) Rumor management -- you now know that when you send it to the media and into the social media world is almost certainly will turn into something different than you intended. That means communication is not about sending it out and letting it takes its course, it is a continuing process of distribution, correction, challenging false reports, and providing continuous updates.

Here's the bottom line: So many think that public information management is about sending out a press release and the job is done. That is hopelessly naive and that approach is guaranteed to cause great disappointment and quite likely loss of trust--and maybe loss of job.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Guest Post: San Bruno, a 1999 Event and how the world has changed

[Editor's note: Another guest post from Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd. This one hits close to home as the event he refers to that happened in 1999 is where I met the good chief as we worked together in responding to the pipeline explosion. This event is also what launched the PIER System and my journey in crisis communication resulting in such things as writing this blog.]

Last night I was sitting at my computer compiling research for a project when my TweetDeck Twitter feed started noting a large fire in the San Francisco area. The comments quickly escalated, with a broad range of observers reporting the same thing. Thinking that there was a major airline catastrophe in the works, I picked a couple of common hash tag words and began monitoring. What this revealed was not only a huge emergency event for the San Bruno community, but also my own emotional baggage from a similar event that occurred in my community in 1999.

Within 20-30 minutes of the beginning of the event, I tapped into online live TV news coverage of the rapidly escalating disaster. The news reporters and tweets were speculating that a gas station had blown up and/or a commercial aircraft had crashed into a neighborhood adjacent to San Francisco International Airport. But, the volume, size and heat generated by the clean burning fire indicated to me that this was most likely a high pressure natural gas pipe line fire. I quickly tweeted my observations, which were re-tweeted and confirmed by others much closer to the situation than me.

Over the next two hours I sat riveted to my computer, reading, observing and sharing information and my perspective and opinion. You see, in 1999, my community experienced a similar disaster. A 16 inch underground pipeline carrying unleaded gasoline ruptured in my city, spewing 230,000 gallons of gasoline into an urban creek, where it was unwittingly ignited by two boys. The ensuing flame front traveled a mile and a half in ten seconds, destroying everything in it’s path, along with the sense of community shared by our citizens. The two boys and another young man lost their lives that day, and the City of Bellingham lost it’s innocence and sense of security. Watching the video and reading the real time tweets from San Bruno took me back to 1999. The emergency responder side of me wanted to get on the next airplane and fly down there to help out. The non-emergency side of me became agitated, impatient and angry that something like this happened to another community. “What the hell happened this time?” was all I could think. Soon thereafter, I decided to disengage for self-preservation purposes and went to bed.

This morning the news and various feeds confirmed my fears and suspicions. An underground pipeline carrying high pressure natural gas had catastrophically failed, incinerating the neighborhood. I was awestruck by not only the devastation, but also the lack of widespread damage, given the lack of water available to firefighters and the strong winds. The San Bruno and assisting fire, police and public works departments did a helluva job in containing a conflagration.

Many lessons will be learned and shared from this event. My initial observations from the “cheap seats”;

  1. San Bruno and assisting public safety/public works/medical care folks performed at the highest level. I am in humbled by their work, and proud to call them peers.
  2. The same goes for the community at large. With the exception of a couple of reports of looting (which is often a rumor in disasters), the altruism of San Bruno citizens warms the heart.
  3. The power of Social Media - especially Twitter - in this event was almost overwhelming. As someone who experienced a similar event just over a decade ago, I not only could understand and predict what was going on, I had a visceral response.
  4. Highly visible events like this generate a lot of SM “noise”. It takes a practiced eye and patience to delineate fact from fiction - and you still may be wrong.
  5. Most folks tweeting from the incident were not directly involved from what I can tell. I am guessing that those immediately affected had much bigger things to worry about.
  6. Twitter postings were coming in faster than I could track. I also suspect that the tweet trend application I use could not keep up with the volume of traffic. I am sure this will discussed at length in the coming days/weeks.
  7. The pipeline company and other responding organizations quickly used SM to get their message out. Whether it was effective or not remains to be seen.

Looking back to 1999, I wish I would have had all of the tools now available. Google Earth, Bing Maps, aerial maps, satellite images, real time weather reports, Twitter, Facebook, and more. The citizens of San Bruno quickly and effectively mobilized to help their emergency responders and neighbors in large part due to the ability to rapidly communicate and rally help in the heat of the moment. I remain humbled.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Gulf Spill's Biggest Lesson According to our National Incident Commander

Admiral Allen would qualify for the nation's Incident Commander-in-residence is such a position existed. Having assumed Incident Command responsibility in the disastrous Katrina response and cleaned the situation up there dramatically, then named National Incident Commander for the Deepwater Horizon spill, no one can speak with more authority about major incidences and what we need to learn from them. So what does the Admiral think is the major lesson learned from the Gulf Spill?

This is what was reported from his interview on NPR yesterday: "The biggest lesson he's learned from this and other disasters, Allen said, is that it's important to make sure all of the different branches and levels of government are working together — something that is harder than it might sound."

Obviously, we would have to dive a little deeper to understand what problem he is referring to and what "working together" really means. But here is my speculation: We have a system called the National Incident Management System built on the Incident Command System. It clearly defines the way in which a coordinated response is supposed to run including how coordinated communication among all participating agencies and partners is supposed to be handled. Many elements of this system were implemented during the event and contributed to what will be seen overall, despite the inordinate time it took to kill the well, as an effective response. However, because of lack of understanding or commitment by senior leaders in a number of different key agencies to this system, there were divergent elements introduced that proved to impact effectiveness. I would not presume to put those words in the Admiral's mouth and it is only my understanding and perception.

But if that is true, the major lesson coming out of this tragic and disastrous event is to not abandon NIMS, but protect its use against potential obstacles to its effective use. I am very much hoping that this becomes an important regulatory and even legislative issue in the future as I think it is critically important to our nation's ability to respond effectively to major events. The response community--meaning you, dear reader--needs to get involved in this issue. If we don't understand it and become involved in looking at how to make national response more effective, do we expect the citizen on the street to do it? I hope the Admiral will become increasingly clear in his analysis of what went wrong and propose some specific solutions and ways to ensure compliance. There is much at stake.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

What did you think of the media coverage of the Gulf Spill?

It's fascinating to me to look at how people evaluate media coverage. The evaluation often says more about the person evaluating than the media itself. For example, if someone says they think FOX is fair and balanced, that might give you an indication of their politics, same is true of those who might say that about Keith Olberman.

If you talk to anyone involved in the Gulf spill or the communications operation of that event, mention the media and their eyes will roll and there's a good chance that if they are inclined toward foul and vulgar language they won't be able to hold it in. Universally those involved have seen the coverage as horrific. Biased, inaccurate, nasty, intentionally misleading, etc. That's why it is quite surprising to me to see from the Pew Research Center findings that the public overall feels the media did a pretty good job. My reaction is, what is wrong with those people? But, that again is the difference between an inside and outside perspective.

The Pew study, announced yesterday, is fascinating. I think it is must reading for any PIO or communication leader responsible for crisis and emergency communication. The event was singular, no question, and they make it clear how unusual the spill was in terms of media coverage. But their analysis is undoubtedly the best way to get a grasp on how the media will cover events like this. And, unlike me, they do it without perceptible bias or frustration.

For those not interested in wading through the lengthy report (very worth it, however) here are the eight key points they make (with my own spin on those points)

1) this story was dominant -- by a long ways. Compared to other major disaster stories, none ever came close to the percent of news hole consumed with the incredible longevity.
2) The "blame game" was exceptionally strong --while the leading story line was the containment and recovery operations (47%) and exceptionally high percentage was focused on finding fault or blame (they call it the blame game, not just me) with BP (27%) and the adminisration (17%)
3) The White House had mixed coverage (I wish Pew had better analyzed the changing WH strategies and how that lined up with the media criticism of the WH, but that will be left for others)
4) BP emerged as antagonist -- that is not surprising, what surprises me is that Pew is using the black hat vs. white hat method of analyzing the news, seeing it as cast in entertainment form which it certainly is
5) The spill was mostly a TV story--with surprising differences in how the cable networks dealt with the story vs. major networks (hint--blame game is CNN and cable business)
6) Social media was not nearly as strong as mainstream media in its focus -- again surprising, but if you look at the nature of social media, it is understandable
7) Media outlets websites with interactive features were very important in telling the story
8) Public interest even exceeded the extremely high level of coverage -- the public simply couldn't get enough of this story

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Crisis management and resilience thinking

I came across this post (thanks William) on Homeland Security Watch by Mark Chubb. Chubb is also responding to the article in the New York Times about crisis management, the BP spill, Toyota and Goldman Sachs. I offered my humble opinion about this article and a similar one in Washington Post at crisisblogger.

Unlike my screed about the hypocrisy of the media who play a big part in creating crises and then say, why can't anyone fix these things?, Mr. Chubb's reaction is much more thoughtful. He points out that while Mr. Goodman of the Times seems to think that crisis managers are those people who come and try to clean up after a mess, the real crisis managers are busy far before things go seriously wrong:
Real crisis managers though are closely related to risk managers and emergency managers, both of whom take a comprehensive approach to their fields, which requires them to consider ways of preventing and mitigating harm before things start to become unwound.

He's absolutely right of course. This is why I am enthusiastic as a professional involved in crisis management to the shift in thinking toward the issue of resilience. Crisis response is only one part of the resilience equation. In our way of thinking there are four key elements: preparation, response, communication and recovery.

Preparation is more than coming up with a good crisis plan, although that is important. As Mr. Chubb points out, preparation includes a comprehensive look at all factors that lead to a crisis, including the internal dynamics of an organization, for the purpose of first of all preventing them from happening in the first place.

The lesson to be drawn from the gulf spill for example, is not the PR crisis management is a failure. There is a far more significant lesson. As was said I believe in Apollo 13: what we have here is a failure of imagination. Not just BP, but the entire industry and its regulators clearly did not conceive of an event the size of what has happened in the gulf. It simply was inconceivable. Not it is not. Reality has replaced the necessity for imagination when it comes to preventing and preparing for a major deepwater spill event.

But where is our imagination failing us now? What events could occur in our communities, cities, businesses and organizations that we reject out of hand. Will it require us, like it has the oil industry, to have a disastrous reality teach us because our imagination has failed us.

I know in the drills and exercises that I will be working on in the future, I will not try to make that mistake. It is so easy to rely on the tried and true scenarios. Mr. Chubb has done as big favor by pointing us in directions where we need to look for where the failures are most likely to occur, and that is deep within our own organizations. We should not be afraid to dig deep, ask hard questions, and most of all, let our imaginations fail us again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

At last--Adm Allen Defends ICS

Adm. Allen at the National Press Club on Friday finally definitively defended the Incident Command System, and explained to the American people why it is important. He also completely acknowledged that it was difficult for the American people to understand the notion of cooperative response between a responsible party and the government.

This is the first important step to helping elected officials, government responders, the media and the public understand what is at stake if ICS and NIMS are thrown out the window as a result of the administration's role in the Deepwater Horizon event.

Adm Allen, the National Incident Commander, went so far as to call it "trust," something that existed in the response early on, but was severely damaged or destroyed by the political necessity of blame avoidance. He explained that because of OPA 90, the government and the industry have been cooperating in response management for the past 20 years: "It is very hard for the public to understand that a responsible party that is clearly responsible for the event itself could somehow be cooperative in the response to the spill. But as a matter of fact, since 1990, that's exactly the way we've conducted oil spill response in this country."

He also points out that the challenge of cooperation is public perception: It's been challenging at times to create that unity of effort given sometimes what appears to be the rejection of the notion [by] the general public," Allen said.

He is absolutely right. Unfortunately, the public perception of the value and necessity of cooperation was severely impacted negatively by political messaging involved in this spill, the ignorance of the media of OPA 90, ICS and NIMS, and the underlying mistrust in the public of government and particularly big oil companies.

You might ask what this "throwing under the bus" of BP has to do with a national disaster response per NIMS? If politics is allowed to play such a role in the communication about any event, Responsible Party-involved or not, every response partner has to worry. Everyone looks behind their back. No government agency is immune from being thrown under the bus to focus and avoid blame. Look what happened to MMS in this event. Gone. What elected official in a major city is going to trust that when it comes to the blame game being played that they will not find themselves in the crosshairs of the White House or the highest office holding the keys to the response? And, as Adm. Allen suggests, trust is at the heart of effective collaborative response.

The response community who understands NIMS and the concept of Unified Command and collaborative emergency public information needs to fight against the kind of political overlordship that we have seen in this response. We don't need a new national response system as David Gergen suggested. We have a great one. We need to make certain it works by preventing it from being co-opted.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An Incident Commander's Incident Commander--Admiral Allen

As the tide of battle, public opinion and politics begins to turn in the Gulf Spill (see story in this morning about the great job done), it is time to give recognition to a true national hero, Admiral Thad Allen.

If you ask any Incident Commander around the nation to describe what an ideal Incident Commander looks like, I would guess most would pretty much describe the Admiral. For good reason. He not only served as National Incident Commander in this event but also came in to Hurricane Katrina after the cataclysmic failure of local and state government response, took charge and achieved remarkable results. It is no doubt in part due to his leadership there that the Coast Guard stood out among all government agencies with its reputation (and funding) significantly enhanced after Katrina.

In the Gulf Spill, he got involved as National Incident Commander as things were starting to go seriously sideways. BP was failing on multiple tries to stem the flow. Media reports were scathing of the response. The administration, doing its best to avoid the "Obama's Katrina" meta-narrative was doing their best to heap outrage on the Responsible Party, key administration leaders were speaking for the response indiscrimately, and the Admiral clearly understood the vital role that BP needed to play to stop the spill.

I wasn't there to observe the operational side, but I had a pretty good ringside seat on the communications. While I have been highly critical here and in other observations about the abandonment of the NIMS JIC model and of the failures of BP, I have been amazed at Adm. Allen's performance as a spokesperson for the administration and response.

He provided the regular briefings with clearly a very deep knowledge of the complicated technology and engineering challenges the response team faced. He made it clear through both policies and repeated statements that Unified Command was committed to full transparency with only the limits of safety and security interfering. His common question to a reporter after providing a response was "was that responsive?" making it clear he was intent on not ducking anything, not equivocating, not spinning, but providing the unvarnished facts as he saw and understood them.

He was not shy about getting reporters on the right track when he saw them veering onto a rabbit trail or agenda. He challenged them but only by coming back to the facts. He was also not shy about contradicting major administration officials; specifically when Sec. Salazar suggested that BP would be thrown out of the response and Sec. Napolitano adamantly denied that BP was a "partner." The Admiral calmly communicated that BP's technology, expertise and commitment were essential. He was even willing to be so honest, in a political and media atmosphere that wishes only to heap scorn on BP, of commenting that their operational response was very good if not excellent, while also criticizing their reserve and ineffectiveness in meeting the American public's need for effective communication.

President Obama's decision to clear the public stage of all the Secretaries and department heads who wanted to speak about this and rely on the Admiral as the single voice of the response is one of the best decisions he made during this event. The Admiral more than lived up to the president's high expectations for him. I still regret that the Unified Command message was lost and that BP was also thrown off the stage, but our nation could not have had a better, more commanding, more reassuring and completely honest and transparent spokesperson for this event. It appears that President Obama has avoided the "Katrina" label and this event will neither define his presidency nor harm his political future. For that, I think he has no one to thank more than Admiral Allen.

The Web is Dead. Apps Rule.

Everything is moving onto the web. The web is where it is at. How long have you heard that? Including from me talking about crisis and emergency communications. Now, we hear the web is dead.

In this intriguing article from Wired magazine, Chris Anderson (author of the Long Tail) and Michael Wolf, the rise and decline of the web is documented. The graphic is particularly telling. Let's make it clear, we are not talking about the decline of the Internet as a more or less universal way of transmitting data. That continues to grow. But as the authors point out, the web is not the internet. The web is one of many, many ways to share information on the internet. As critics of this post have pointed out, the web may not be declining so much as other uses of the internet are expanding so rapidly that the web's share of traffic is declining.

What does this mean for emergency managers and PIOs? It means we all need to be thinking more of delivering information to mobile devices and facilitating interaction on mobile devices. Apps rule as the rapidly emerging preferred front end to data sharing on the internet. During Hurricane Ike we discovered that a very significant percentage of the population of Houston-Galveston were relying on their smartphones--charging batteries with car chargers--to get information about the storm and assistance. The Red Cross study which I've commented on here and other bloggers on as well has made it clear that social media is already and will be a critical means of communicating with an increasing segment of the population. And social media is largely about mobility and access through mobile devices--particularly now as the popularity of the iPad will accelerate the introduction of a million knock-offs. Portable internet devices from smartphones to pad computers to embedded devices in almost everything you use will be ubiquitous.

As has always been true in emergency communication, we can't think that the mountain will come to us. We must find our audience where they are and make sure they are getting the information they need where and how they want it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

David Gergen's Call for National Solutions to Emergency Response

David Gergen is my favorite pundit. I always sit up and take notice when I see him on CNN. I think it is because he admirably served both Democratic and Republican presidents plus the fact that his views are usually wise, insightful and somehow above the din of noise just below him.

Now the Harvard professor and CNN political pundit is calling for an overhaul of the nation's laws regarding emergency response. But his solutions, I hate to say this, are based on a very inadequate understanding of the emergency response procedures already in place--most specifically the National Incident Management System (NIMS).

Gergen says:

- the American people believe the Gulf response was inadequate--agree, but not because we don't have good methods for dealing with this

- he says responders are frustrated -- agree, very frustrated, but primarily because overseers who did not know NIMS/ICS/JIC prevented them from using it

- he says we need a command structure modeled after the military -- exactly right, except we have one called Incident Command System that became NIMS in 2004

- he says: Laws and regulations patched together over the years have given large, often vague and confusing responsibilities to too many players, starting with the feds but also state and local officials and, in some cases, corporations like BP. The result is a chain of command clogged with uncertainty and delays. -- here is where he is very wrong. We have a clear, effective system (NIMS/ICS). The Unified Command structure has been effectively implemented in numerous responses. Oil Pollution Act of 1990 specifically includes the Responsible Party (such as BP) in Unified Command because 1) they have expertise and technology that the feds don't have and 2) they are paying for everything so they should have a say--yet the lead Fed agency always has the most say.

- he says: But if a crisis mushrooms—as the oil spill did—the federal government must take decisive command. Never again should the country’s fate rest with a corporation. He's right--it never should and never did. That was the point of OPA 90--created from lessons learned from ExxonValdez which was a company response. From the first moments of the spill Unified Command was formed, Coast Guard was the Federal On-Scene Coordinator and then a National Incident Commander was named all in accordance with OPA 90. Gergen has bought into the media and political mis-info that said BP was in charge. BP was under Unified Command directives from the very beginning. It's just the administration, attempting initially to avoid the media blame game, convinced everyone that this was BP's spill and the fed's job was to put "their boot on BP's neck", until May 27 when the president said, "actually, we were in charge all along." Right, they were.

- Gergen says: Once we have good plans in place, we must invest far more in leadership training for first-responders. Good news-- the government has spent hundreds of millions, if not billions in training on NIMS (Mr Gergen, please Google NIMS and find out about FEMA's extensive on-line training and the NIMS Five Year Training plan.) The sad thing is, DHS never informed the media, the public, CNN pundits, nor apparently the Secretary and her boss about this.

I join the esteemed Mr. Gergen in calling for a national solution to the problems exhibited by the gulf spill. But the problem is not that we don't have an effective plan in place and training to support it. The problem is that the system and plan we have is not adequately protected against political meddling, and it is not well known by the public, the media and elected officials. It is a problem I deal with in every major urban area in preparing plans for coordinating emergency communications. The biggest issue by far is the very real concern that the mayor, or county judge, or governor will circumvent the Unified Command process and the Joint Information Center which operates under authority of the Unified Command. My answer has always been--sure your mayor can pre-empt Unified Command and its authority under the law, but you run the risk of not getting federal reimbursement under a presidential declaration. That certainly helps to secure compliance with NIMS. But what happens when the highest office of the land, that has no equivalent downside, circumvents NIMS, takes control from Unified Command of the communication function or any function they choose, and turns the response into a politically-driven operation? There is apparently no law that prevents this. This, Mr. Gergen, is where the focus needs to be. We have a great system, a great tool. We need to make certain that it will not again fall victim to political agendas.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Future of Incident Specific and Joint Information Center websites

The Deepwater Horizon event has presented the world with the largest, most fully functioning and information-rich incident and JIC website ever. (Full disclosure--my company PIER provides the site). But, what will the future of such websites be? As envisioned by the National Incident Management System and ICS, there would be one voice for the response, one PIO, one JIC, one authoritative source for the response reflecting the combined information and messaging of all response participants including the Responsible Party (under OPA 90).

I have written before here about the role of the Department of Homeland Security and the White House in managing the information flow on the Deepwater Horizon event and the potential implications for NIMS/ICS/ICS. If I and others thought our concerns were overwrought all we had to do was look at the Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo river in Michigan to have our worst fears realized. In this event EPA launched an incident specific site reflecting its activities and Enbridge launched a site detailing its actions. You will note that each calls the event a different name--one of the no nos in ICS/NIMS. You will also note that EPA explains that Unified Command has been established but specifically does not mention that Enbridge is a participant in Unified Command. I don't know, but I suspect they are. But public perception is clearly being molded to believe that EPA, along with state and local agencies, are the ones solely responding to and managing this event. Can't quite see how that squares with OPA 90 and ICS.

The single, authoritative voice for the response is gone, non-existent. The media no doubt are going to each individual agency and player and getting different information and messages about the response.

As this threat to NIMS and its effectiveness in communicating with the public isn't problem enough, there is another emerging threat. Google launched an incredibly impressive "mash-up" of information related to the Deepwater Horizon event. I have to hand it to them (and thanks Phil for showing this to me!) the company that promised to "organize the world's information" has done a masterful job of organizing relevant information about the spill. It should be studied by all of us who need to plan what the response websites of the future will look like.

So why is it a concern? In my ideal world of crisis and emergency response communication the incident website will be the primary, authoritative, fastest and most efficient provider of relevant information about the event to all stakeholders, all audiences. The decision of Unified Command or its superiors in the Deepwater incident to eliminate BP from the official communication and to focus on the administration's role and activities rather than pure response information forced many to turn to BP for the best response information. received considerably more traffic than the incident website. That is not something BP wanted or intended, but it was a consequence of Command decisions about information. In the Enbridge case, there is no one authoritative voice--each participant telling the story apparently without coordination or an attempt to create that single voice. Now, if other players such as Google decide to take on the task of assembling and presenting information in such a compelling way it will be even more difficult for the Unified Command to establish that unified voice.

What does it matter? In a national emergency clear, authoritative, simple, non-contradictory information will be vital for the public. Without that unnecessary panic, fear, over-reactions may all result. Some may simply choose not to respond due to confusion. The book "The Unthinkable" by Amanda Ripley, plus the work of Dr. Vince Covello, make it very clear that simple, authoritative messages are essential for appropriate public reaction and participation in real emergencies. With Deepwater Horizon and the emergence of this kind of unofficial "mash-up" the ability to provide that kind of authoritative voice may be seriously compromised.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Red Cross Survey Shows Absolute Necessity of Social Media in a Disaster

Yes, there are still holdouts in the emergency communications business. Still PIOs who think their job is to put out a press release or two and send to the media to communicate about a disaster response. Still some who doubt the importance of an incident website, interactive engagement with stakeholders and the public. And some who still say, "Twitter what?" "Facebook, hunh?"

Research just conducted by the American Red Cross should put any debate about this issue to rest. The essential message is that as more and more Americans turn to the Internet as a source of information, they use the Internet to gain the vital information they need. And this is especially true in serious emergencies or disasters. The sample of 1058 survey participants was drawn from people who volunteered for online surveys, so it cannot be said to represent the entire population. However, it clearly shows the high use of social media (75%) and the high expectation of direct engagement with the response organization through email, text, social media applications, etc.

This information is fully supported by our experience in helping manage communications during the Gulf Spill. 50,000 people added themselves to the mailing list to receive updates, and additional several thousand added themselves to individual state websites managed by BP. About 8000 signed up for text alerts, 40,000 as Facebook fans, 8500 as Twitter friends in addition to the over 2.5 million who viewed spill videos on YouTube and 250,000 who viewed the almost 1000 spill photos posted by Unified Command on Flickr.

Emergency communications is simply not the same game it was just a few short years ago. Today it is about engagement rather than pushing information. It is more about correcting all the wrong or twisted information that gets shared by others, than it is even about being the first source. It is about conversation, not proclaiming. The sooner PIOs and communication managers understand that, the faster response managers and Incident Commanders will understand that.

Friday, July 30, 2010

More sign of the demise of the JIC--the Enbridge Spill

It is now very clear that the NIMS/ICS/Joint Information Center concept implemented by the government and the oil industry since 1990 is not being used in the Deepwater Horizon response. Particularly from a public information standpoint, the primary value of using that system, mandated by federal law and regulations, was to enable there to be a single voice for the response and that single voice represented in largely equal measure the perspectives of the Responsible Party as well as the lead federal, state and local government agencies.

There is a major oil spill going on in Michigan, involving pipeline operator Enbridge. The press release from the EPA and their response website demonstrate very very clearly that the JIC is dead, even though the response may be handled using other NIMS/ICS protocols.

Why do I say the JIC is dead and how does this vary from the way responses were handled pre-gulf spill? You would never have seen an agency like the EPA loudly proclaiming in a press release that it is in charge--leading some to believe that the response had actually been federalized. EPA wants to leave no doubt that the federal government is running this response--quietly mentioning that oh, yeah, the RP is here too. That is very very different from way this has been drilled and done before. Before, the message was (typically led by RP) that here we stand, company, fed, state, local--we are all in this together. Unified Command and all that.

Secondly, the website. The EPA is running its own website, as is Enbridge. Single voice? Not a chance. In fact, it is likely that we will see info on EPA's response website that throws Enbridge under the bus. Why do I expect that? Deepwater might have something to do with that. What has always happened before is there was a single website with the rules being that the JIC and only the JIC is the authoritative voice. This is what makes the JIC and essential element of NIMS because NIMS/ICS demands that Command be responsible for and have authority over all elements of the response--including communications. When you have each agency involved on its own, its own messaging, its own strategy, its own information flow, there can be no Unified Command authority or control over the information. Another DWH legacy.

But one of the most telling items is the name. Under NIMS/ICS, an incident is supposed to have a single name and it usually the location or something specific to incident. It may seem a minor point but getting one name and sticking to it does several things--avoids confusion and avoids placing blame in the naming process--particularly important because in so many of these events who really is responsible isn't known until the investigation and legal process is complete. Unified Command named the Deepwater Horizon event the Deepwater Horizon event. However, a higher power renamed it: the BP Spill. Now look at this event in Michigan. The EPA calls it the Enbridge Oil Spill. Enbridge calls it "the leak on line 6B."

Yes, the gulf spill (I call it that because, well, since it doesn't seem to have a consistent name anymore I guess anyone can call it what they want), yes the gulf spill has changed our world.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Media Coverage of Spill Moving Into New Phase

It's been fascinating and often disheartening to watch media coverage throughout the Gulf Spill (again full disclosure for those who may be new to Crisis Comm blog--both US Coast Guard and BP are long time clients). The harshness, negativity, blackhat stories and conspiracy theories have been rampant, along with some outstanding and very enlightening coverage of what is going on. But there have been definite phases of coverage that reveal how long duration events such like this play out in the news media and how the news media itself works.

Today the story is changing dramatically. Where in the past, particularly in early to mid-June when coverage was at its peak, most major blogs and news outlets were competing on how bad they could make it and how evil those behind the spill or failures in the response were. That story line is suddenly shifting. A few relevant examples:

Spill Vanishing. It seems things started turning with this story from NYT, one of the mainstream who did the most to exaggerate the damage (remember the inaccurate report of the huge underwater plume?)

BP Spill Damage Exaggerated. Time Magazine even goes so far as to suggest Rush Limbaugh might have been right.

Yes, but who is to blame for the exaggeration, and who gains from it?
The Telegraphic in UK takes this one on. Conspiracy theories are never far behind, even when the story changes from "it's horrible" to "someone screwed up by saying it was horrible."

BP looking better. The Wall Street Journal noticed that things were looking better for BP in all of this and made an article of it.

Maybe it's not their fault. Amid all this is mounting speculation that the blame for this may fall on others.

Maybe it won't matter as much as we thought. Then there is this one from AP suggesting that previous spills may have greater impact on society and legislation.

Don't get me wrong. BP's reputation will be impacted by this for my lifetime anyway, and chances are most of those who may be reading this. The important thing for emergency managers interested in how these things play out in the media and public opinion is to understand what is going on here and why.

A few comments that may help better understand this change as well as coverage thr0ughout this event.

1) Every day the war starts anew. By the war I mean the battle that every publisher and editor faces--how do I get eyes on my screen or paper today? More than that, how do I steal eyes from my millions of competitors? So every day something new has to be created. The story in the Gulf isn't changing much. Bummer for the media. So something has to be new, something has to change and that means that new angles, stories and trends have to be created if not simply uncovered.

2) Good guys don't win wars. By that I mean, good news stories have a hard time in the tough competition for eyes, ears and minds. That's why the blame game exists. Put a black hat on someone and eyes will turn. Hey--I found the guy to blame for all this--and suddenly people will pay attention. Time even put a list of the top twelve candidates to blame. So, now there is good news about the spill--it is vanishing and the damage may not be as great as we thought. So who should be blame for their being good news? It's like they can't help themselves.

3) If you don't like the weather now, hang around for a minute. Sort of like the weather in Denver, media coverage is always changing. (See point one). That means you have to have some patience. It's been understood about celebrity coverage for some time that the media loves to build someone up into some kind of godlike being, and then loves even more to tear them down to human size, or lower. The same is true of events, companies, government agencies, etc. Why? See point two.

4) The herd mentality. In most major stories, there emerges what might be called a meta-narrative. In Katrina it was simple--the feds let us down, particularly President Bush. That story was repeated ad nauseum despite the basic underlying truth that until Katrina, FEMA was never seen or understood as a response organization. The meta-narrative of this spill has been BP is a big evil foreign company that caused the spill and is failing to fix it. Well, half the shareholders are American. Investigation will show the causes. Failure to fix it was true due to the incredible technical challenges. Failure or slowness in paying claims has been essentially untrue and completely exaggerated. But that was the story line and probably 90% of America believes it because it was repeated so often. Now, we may see the story line changing and the herd is following. It seems contradictory that media need a new story and angle every day and then to see such "me too" coverage. But no one seems to want to try and challenge the meta-narrative. So the new angles tend to be minor issues supporting that big overwhelming story, with few if any, challenging the underlying truth of the big story.

I can't wait to see the news tomorrow. "Claims the spill was exaggerated are exaggerated--and we know who to blame!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Government and the Internet--the plot thickens

Today the news is that a website, Wikileaks, has published 90,000 classified documents relating to the war in Afghanistan. This website is dedicated to publishing classified and "leaked" documents. The administration is claiming that this act of making public information that was never intended for public viewing could put American lives and security at stake.

On July 19, the New York Times published an important article by Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, titled "The Web Means the End of Forgetting." The primary point is that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet with much potential harm to those who don't think about what they put there. He makes the intriguing point that while we now live in a global village, sharing almost everything with the 6 billion or more other people on this planet, we have not adopted the village's values of "forgive and forget." The consequences to lives now and in the future will be great.

Last Thursday, July 22, the GAO published a document of testimony titled: "Information Management: Challenges in Federal Agencies' Use of Web 2.0 Technologies." It reviewed the issues arising from government agencies using social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and such uses impact issues such as the Privacy Act of 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act.

On that same day, an article appeared in Federal Computer Week highlighting the Department of Defense's new social media hub where the hundreds of thousands of fans on Facebook pages for the various military departments can get info about social media use by these departments.

Clearly, there is great ferment here. What we are seeing is a convergence of a very important social value of exceptional openness and transparency combining with the technological means of providing that openness. The British found that transparency included the failure to keep Prince Harry's presence in Afghanistan a secret. The US is finding that keeping military secrets is increasingly challenging. Individuals are finding that off-handed or poorly thought out comments or postings may impact their lives and careers forever.

For government and private PIOs and communication leaders, there are no simple answers to this. The public seems to demand complete, unrestricted transparency, and they and the media will cry "cover-up" and "guilty as charged" as soon as they see the slightest hint of reservation about release of information. But there are obviously dangers and concerns with the release, and what do these new channels and forums mean relating to making certain that records are available in compliance with the law?

The law, technology, social values and agency policy all have to come together in a way that is defensible. We are moving in that direction it seems, but it is a bit like watching sausage being made. It's not very pretty. Until we come to some social and policy consensus, there will be much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. Jeffrey Rosen's reminder of the role of forgiveness in an earlier and simpler time of village life is important to remember.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Public Engagement--another lesson from the Gulf Spill

Having done a number of presentations so far on the communications for the Gulf Spill it is clear one of the most surprising and important lessons learned has to do with the way the Unified Command has engaged directly with the public. One of the most profound ways the Internet has changed public information and crisis management is by creating the possibility of and the demand for one-to-one engagement. While the majority of public relations professionals including PIO-types still live in the old media-centric world, more and more are realizing that communications, and particularly crisis communication, is about interactivity, about direct conversation, about engagement with individuals and groups with where they want to be.

The communication leaders of the Gulf Spill response early on clearly understood the value of direct engagement. As one of the communication leaders said during one of the recent presentations, not only does the engagement aid in building understanding of what is actually going on, but also provides real-time view into trending topics, emerging issues, rumors, misinformation and public priorities. These help guide not only the communications, but even some of the response decisions themselves.

The Gulf Spill, like almost every other aspect of this event, has experienced unprecedented direct engagement. The website (full disclosure--a PIER site provided by my company)for Unified Command has received over 53,000 inquiries through the inquiry form and almost all of those have been directly and individually responded to. Forms built into the system have collected claims requests, suggestions, responses to public meetings, and other information important to Unified Command. The fact that the entire system is web-based means that the communicators working on these responses don't need to be in the command center or Joint Information Center but indeed are located all around the country and beyond.

The key to effective crisis response is preparation, and preparation is aided considerably by taking a closer look at the kind of questions and comments people submit via the incident website. In the case of the Gulf Spill, inquiries are sorted into 35 different categories. Many of these are related to specific technical topics such as toxicity of oil or dispersants, progress with containment activities, impact of hurricanes on the response activities, etc. Others are specific to the media including media interview requests or opportunities for embeds. The largest numbers of inquiries are from people who wish to help. These include asking about volunteering, about providing a Vessel of Opportunity, about suggestions or ideas for containing the flow, or for selling products or services. In the case of this event, BP and Unified Command set up a process for evaluating all ideas and suggestions, running them by a highly competent technical review committee to make certain that no valid ideas were ignored. Suggestions have come in to the response command via multiple means--in addition to the thousands through the PIER inquiry form, a special PIER form was set up for this purpose and thousands of calls were received by the call center.

The second largest category of inquiries were negative ones. Again, these have been registered in unprecedented numbers and many of them would not be appropriate to share in most polite company. This is no doubt due to several factors including the nature of the event itself, the longevity of it, and the highly critical media coverage.

The website itself was only one vehicle for managing this public engagement. The spill communicators set up a number of social media channels for both helping communicate the continual flow of information, to monitor the discussion, and to engage with "friends" and "followers" directly. Additional tens of thousands of comments were posted on the response's Facebook page and Twitter page, as well as the Flickr and YouTube accounts used by the Unified Command.

It is increasingly clear that this event will impact crisis communication for a long time to come. The mistakes that have been made, the unremittingly negative press coverage, the political involvement, the demand for live video, the outcries over real and feared access limitations--all these have great importance for crisis communicators and PIOs. But the model that has been set for direct public engagement may be one of the quietest, least obvious and most important lessons of all. Are you prepared to directly engage those who expect it of you? And how will you do it?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Live Video--The Future of Crisis Communication Is Now

The importance of live video feeds to the Gulf Spill response cannot be missed. It was the subject of news media coverage for days, approx 1.5 million individuals have watched the spill live video feeds on the Internet since they were first provided, and the cost in bandwidth to BP is astronomical. But the real lesson for anyone contemplating the future of emergency and crisis communications is that live video will be a key component of almost every major response going forward.

If you are a PIO or communication leader for an organization involved you may think you have a choice in the matter. No you don't. If the incident is subject to live video it will be provided--either by you or by someone else.

At this point BP is providing as many as 12 live video feeds and more may be added in the future. For the more technical in the crowd, the data is now being measured in petabytes (we're way past terrabytes). The cost of such enormous data feeds must be considered in the planning budgets of emergency response organizations in the future. In the case of an Responsible Party event, in other words oil and shipping industry events, the RP will pay and it will be required of them to provide it.

The role of live video feeds in major events should not surprise us. It is the natural convergence of technological capability wedded to our instant information/entertainment/transparency-driven culture. All news media (including new media) compete on the basis of immediacy. If it isn't happening right now, it really doesn't matter. That's why "Breaking News" is such a big deal on broadcast and why all the major newspapers have instant news alerts and websites that feature "breaking news." It's all about right now. What happened half an hour ago is, well, old news.

In the meantime, video production gets more and more democratized. The last few years have seen a giant revolution in the entertainment as well as news business because of the ready availability of high definition professional level gear at consumer prices. Now we've taken another giant leap in this democratization. Imagine producing a tv quality or even movie quality film--on your phone! I mean shooting, recording, mixing, editing--and distributing. Don't believe me--check this out. A film created entirely on the new iphone 4.

The future isn't coming at us, folks, it's right here. Alvin Toffler, where are you when we need you most?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Is this the best Social Media guide?

PIOs and crisis communicators have been watching the Gulf Spill with great interest. As some of our friends in the Coast Guard and working in the Unified Command JIC have said, this event may be the first "social media" response. Certainly, social media is being aggressively and effectively used.

One of the leading Coast Guard public affairs managers involved in the spill recently collaborated with me on a spill communications briefing and told the attendees how social media was not only used to help communicate important information, but how monitoring it helped form communication responses and strategies and how it is also being used by the response management to help understand emerging public issues and concerns.

Still, many leading communication managers and PIOs that I talk to are still trying to get their arms around what social media really is, how to implement it in their organizations, how to create policies that both allow use by employees and provide some protection against the many risks.

If you are struggling to understand how to really adopt social media in your organization, here is a great guide put out by Eloqua. Admittedly, this is marketing oriented, but the distance between marketing and public affairs and crisis management is narrowing all the time--social media being one of those reasons for it narrowing. So I think you will find it incredibly useful in understanding what will work and not work in your organization, as well as getting a handle on some of the emerging channels such as Foursquare and Gowalla.

(P.S. -- thanks William for another great find)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Journalistic ignorance of NIMS/ICS is hurting the nation

Here's one of the most egregious examples of journalistic ignorance of the National Incident Management System, the Incident Command System, the Joint Information Center and the Oil Pollution Act of 1990: The Washington Post says the spill has created an uneasy marriage between BP and the government.

For twenty years government agencies at the federal, state and local levels have practiced this marriage with every major oil company and oil shipping company. They've been at the altar for 20 years, well, actually way past the altar. Why? Because they like each other so much? No, because the law required it. The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 following ExxonValdez required the government and private company identified as the "Responsible Party" to collaborate in stopping the spill and cleaning it up. The RP pays, the government under authority of the lead federal agency, approves all plans, all actions, and all information. That's the way it has been--until 2010. That's when the biggest event of all called for everything invested in this system to pay off.

But we have been bitterly disappointed. Not by BP, not by the Coast Guard or the other agencies involved. But by the highest office in the land which has chosen for its own political future to put aside the 20 years of productive, cooperative and highly effective investment in a collaborative means of responding to big events. This action, as I have stated here before, is putting the future of NIMS and the JIC very much at risk--I believe putting at risk the ability of our nation to respond effectively to events in the future including major terrorist events. To what end? To avoid this administration being painted with the Katrina brush. It is a high price to pay in my mind. One we may all have to pay for in the long term.

But the political messaging that has overwhelmed the Joint Information Center releases is only made possible because of ignorance of NIMS/ICS and the JIC. This headline from the Washington Post demonstrates it, as does the seriously light weight cover story in the New York Times today.

If the reporter writing for the Washington Post was more informed about Unified Command, he would not be surprised about the forced marriage of BP and the federal government. He would be far more surprised, shocked even, that in this event a relationship that has been worked out through years of smaller events and large drills would be so badly damaged--to the detriment of the response and the victims--by a heavy handed political overlay.

It's long a truism in management that effective teamwork requires mutual trust, respect and open communication. That existed in the early days of the response. The marriage was there, tested and tried by time and effort. But that marriage was destroyed by dictate. The response is not better for it, the gulf is not better for it, BP is certainly not better for it, and I would suggest that the administration is not more respected for it.

The Washington Post, had it been more informed, would not have written about an uneasy marriage. But how a perfectly good marriage, so desperately needed in this response has had divorce forced upon it. The question ahead, and I would hope some better informed reporter would focus on it, is what does this forced divorce mean for the future of collaborative response? That may be one of the most distressing legacies of this very sad chapter in our history.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Guest Post - A Call for Technology Solutions

I'm happy to once again offer this spot to my friend Bill Boyd, in this along with him is David Sonnen. Bill is Fire Chief of my town of Bellingham, WA and has contributed several thought provoking blog posts here. This one is longer than most but the call they issue for technology solutions to getting relevant information to responders when they need it is definitely worth considering.

Open architecture for emergency response. A long overdue concept.

Summary: Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful open web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide-ranging emergency incidents. Emergency responders should be able to manage internal collaboration and public discourse from the same system using inclusive and non-proprietary technology solutions.

Imagine, a fire is reported in a dumpster behind an industrial facility in the outskirts of a small city in the middle of the night. A fire engine is dispatched from the local fire department. As they respond, the company officer pulls up a pre-incident plan of the facility on the engine’s mobile data computer (MDC). The plan notes the facility makes "airplane parts", and stores a small amount of hazardous materials on site. No other information is available. The crew arrives to find a police officer casually directing them to the rear of the facility, where they pull up to find a typical sized dumpster with bright red/white flame and white smoke showing from the top. The engine company officer pauses for a moment, thinking the smoke looks a little unusual. He briefly considers contacting the dispatch center to contact the owner of the facility, as he has no way to know what might be in the dumpster. But, seeing that the fire seems to be contained, he orders a hose line stretched to extinguish the fire. Per SOP, both the firefighter and officer are wearing full protective gear, including breathing apparatus. The driver/pump operator charges the hose with water and the firefighter opens the nozzle. Suddenly, a violent explosion picks up both firefighters and throws them 20 feet, showering them with white hot metal fragments. The dumpster peels back like a cheap tin can. Next day, the local paper headlines, "Firefighters Surprised and Injured by Dumpster".

Now, imagine the same scenario, only this time when the engine company arrives the officer, noting the unusual flame and smoke characteristics, turns to his MDC and types; "White hot flame and billowing white smoke, dumpster, airplane parts." The computer screen immediately shows quick links to information that indicates this is not your typical dumpster fire - the contents burning are likely the byproduct of the manufacturing of aluminum airplane parts, and applying water to this type of fire would likely have catastrophic results. The company officer wisely decides to isolate the area, deny entry, call for a hazardous materials team and moves his fire engine away from the dumpster. Soon thereafter, the dumpster melts away, spilling the burning contents onto the concrete where they are quickly consumed. After an hour, all units clear the scene and return to quarters. On the way back, the Captain types a quick note on the unusual situation on his MDC – which automatically updates the department's Facebook, Twitter, and Google Buzz accounts. The local paper doesn't even notice. But a City Council member tweets back, "Nice job".

You may be thinking; what’s the big deal? This information is all over the Internet and easy to find." Yes, there is a wealth of information about hazardous materials, chemical composition, firefighting tactics, after-action reports/lessons learned, etc... But, finding and using this good stuff is another story. Emergency responders should be able to intuitively and quickly access useful web-based information to help provide real time situational awareness, information and direction in mitigating wide ranging emergency incidents. Responders should be able to hold up their end of their conversation with their community -- simply and credibly == in ways that are relevant to their community.

Firefighters encounter unpredictable and deadly situations, requiring rapid size-up, interpretation and action. This environment has many similarities to a battlefield, where field commanders routinely make split second decisions with very limited information. Newly minted officers rely heavily on their training to guide their actions. As they gain experience they compare the situation they are confronted with to their previous similar experiences and base their actions accordingly. In other words, if it worked before it will probably work again. This approach works well most of the time. But, it can also result in complacency or inappropriate actions resulting from an empty slide tray. In these situations an officer needs all the external information they can get, as quickly as they can get it, to rapidly formulate an action plan based on what they see.

The fire service culture honors tradition, honor and sacrifice. While noble traits, they can inhibit innovation and compromise safety. With that said, newly minted emergency responders are well versed in computer skills and likely have tons of experience in using social media tools. Responders in this day and age are used to using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Digg, Blogspot, etc.. to communicate and assimilate information. A challenge for technology innovators is to ensure tradition does not overtake innovation for the new breed of emergency responders, and build upon this culture shift.
It is time to evaluate the why and how of emergency responder thought processes in emergency situations, and how web based information technologies – present and future- can support and enhance these thought processes, with the goal of helping lifesavers do their jobs safer and more efficiently. Current web search engines are extremely powerful, accessing millions of data points, depending on the type of query. This type of searching is suitable if you are writing a research paper, looking for an old friend or are curious about how to home brew beer. But, an MDC would serve better as a wheel chock than an effective emergency decision making tool given how information is commonly retrieved currently.

Emergency services depend on technology. But, sometimes our technologies could work a lot better for us than they do. New technology is likely to need years of patching, changing and reissuing (at our expense) before it is really useful. Now we have a thundering herd of new stuff stampeding down the tech road.

We think it would be a good idea to try to get ahead of the thundering herd by giving the technologists a better idea of what we actually need. So, we started writing down the things we know and the things that we would like technologists to think about as they build out new emergency response systems. The lists below are our first cut.

We think that all of us are smarter than a couple of us. We'd like this article to be a starting point for serious discussions about what future technologies should do for our emergency response community and the communities we serve. We think that our professional organizations should focus and consolidate our collective tech requirements.

With that said, here's a list of discussion points.

New things we know for sure

The technology sector has yet to create a widely adopted standard platform for deep web search and filtering user interface tools for the emergency response community. Most emergency response agencies have not embraced use of social media tools, search, or even use basic information tools as currently configured.
Most public sector emergency response agencies cannot afford expensive proprietary information systems.
Information extracted from the Web could be valuable in pre-planning, training, and real-time emergency operations.
Emergency response agencies are concerned about the security of social media sites and the impact on the transparency of government.
Most people use computers and use the Internet. Many use social media to communicate and gather information
Robust, real-time sophisticated data streaming and filtering systems are already being used by specific sectors (Financial institutions and nuclear safety for example).
Open software and open data are easier to adopt and less expensive than proprietary systems.

Questions for discussion

Can most-if not all- emergency response information requirements be met with a single, integrated approach?
Does it make sense to link social media tools that push out information and search tools that retrieve critical information for responder use?
What are some of the categories of information available on the web that may be useful in an ongoing emergent situation?
What search, data access, and filtering barriers do response agencies encounter that hinder their response preparedness capabilities?
What are the requirements emergency responders have to easily access emergent information?
What are the device constraints, if any, to accessing and using dynamic Web-based information in field operations?
What tools currently exist that can be used or reconfigured to assist in searching, accessing, analyzing and publishing dynamic information for field operations?
Can data and/or interface standards contribute to the value of emergency response data?
What are the social and cultural barriers to using effective information in the emergency response community?
What organizational capabilities are in place to promote the effective use of new information technologies? E.g.: ICS, national or regional training/ certification, professional organizations, informal channels.

Design Considerations/ Requirements

The system has to be easier to use than not to use.
Any user experience must be self-re-enforcing. That means that the user will get something of real, tangible value from any use of the system.
User interfaces must be independent of the underlying business logic. This means that any interface can be tailored to an individual's specific, local needs.
While source data may be unstructured and unformatted, the user must see predictable, consistent information in forms that are familiar to each user.
The system must operate in connected, occasionally connected and unconnected environments.
System must screen and secure sensitive data like personal health and national security information.
The system must be freely available to qualified users, and scalable from 1 user to hundreds working in a real or virtual crisis Joint Information Center (JIC).
Much, if not most, information will be in the deep Web behind various forms, firewalls and other barriers. When duly authorized, the system must be able to search and access deep Web sources.
Collaboration will be an important element in the system. Any collaboration tools must be freely available, simple and scalable. Collaboration tools must be compatible with major social media sites.
The platform(s) must be designed in anticipation that various social media platforms will transition in and out of favor. Therefore, the interfaces must be as flexible and universal in capturing current and future social integration media.
The system must capture local citizen comments, opinions and ideas about each local agency. Citizens must be able to become involved, ask questions and participate in discussions about the local, regional agencies or specific incidents. The local agency must be able to easily track trends, manage citizen and media requests and monitor real time dialog from multiple platforms.

Right, now, a huge emergency response effort is underway in the gulf coast to stop a gushing deep underwater oil well and organize an unprecedented and long term cleanup effort. Researchers, scientists, industry, government, safety officials and public relations experts are hard at work trying to stop the spill and limit the resulting environmental and political damage. This response and cleanup "machine" is not only searching out all possible data, research and ideas, it is also monitoring the impact of its efforts on the people, environment, government and the oil industry. The Web 2.0 "Cloud" is undoubtedly being used in intense and unique ways, and while some impacts of this innovation are likely already being identified, others may be not realized and widely known for some time. It is likely discipline specific ad hoc search databases, search tools and filters have been created by command staff and technical specialists to assist them in quickly researching relevant information. Likewise, these tools are providing real time intelligence about public perception, rumors and "ground truth" observations. This type of integration is exactly what is needed on broader basis within the emergency response community. It should not have to take an unprecedented environmental disaster to make it happen, but we can use this opportunity.

The next steps are up to you. As a community and profession, we can work to have better technologies or we can let technologists guess what we need. We challenge those in the technology sector to work with the emergency response community to further refine the questions and concepts listed above to improve public safety. To quote writer William Gibson, "The future is here. It is just not evenly distributed."

David Sonnen is a geospatial technology consultant and writer. His past work includes serving in emergency services and working for a Type 1 Incident Management Team. He has a degree in Forestry. His publications through International Data Corporation (IDC) have been surprisingly accurate in predicting future tech trends.

Bill Boyd is the Fire Chief for the Bellingham, Washington Fire Department. He serves as a incident commander for the Northwest Washington Incident Management Team- a regional Type III all-hazards team. He is a graduate of Western Washington University and the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Not Sure How the Joint Information Center Can Survive This

I do not see how the Joint Information Center (JIC), as it has been conceived and implemented the past ten years, will be able to survive the Deepwater Horizon event. If I am right, this will have very significant consequences for how major environmental events are managed in the future as well as how NIMS (National Incident Management System) will be implemented in the future.

To understand the very serious implications of what is happening today, we have to go back to the Incident Command System and how it developed, particularly in the oil industry. ICS began in the early 1970s with the fire services on the West Coast. When a number of fire of agencies came together to fight a fire they found the coordination pretty difficult. Who was in charge? Who was deciding what trucks and resources should be deployed where? How and where did the critical event information come in? What do you do when one battalion chief in a podunk department won't take orders from someone of lower rank who has been given authority in the combined response? And how does everyone know what responsibilities go with each job?

From a media and public communication standpoint, the problem was also serious. Who has the authoritative information? What is the public to think when one fire department PIO says the fire is 200 acres and another says it is 2000 acres?

The answer to this was the Incident Command System with it single command structure incorporating multiple agencies, its standardized jobs and job descriptions, its management principles such as span of control, and its insistence that rank or position outside of the response mean nothing when it relates to making assignments and reporting structure. It was brilliant and effective and has proven so in multiple responses since then. For communication, the same approach applied. The Joint Information Center, made up of PIOs from various agencies participating, established its own organization structure and information flows with the idea being to provide the single point of information, the single voice for the response. It too was effective and incredibly helpful in getting information out--relatively quickly, accurately, and without conflict or confusion.

When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed after the ExxonValdez event in 1989, the Incident Command System along with the Joint Information Center was mandated for the oil industry. From that point on, the government agencies involved in a response--federal, state, local and tribal--would work in close collaboration with the Responsible Party--legally defined as the owner of the oil, not the one who caused the problem--under the Unified Command structure. Ultimately, it was the federal agency in the response, the Coast Guard for on the water events and EPA for on the land events, that held the trump card because they and only they had the option of "federalizing," the event, that is pushing everyone else aside and taking direct control of all response activities.

OPA 90 further mandated that each company with facilities or vessels at risk of major incidences had to practice an ICS event, and every three years a "worst case scenario" event. I have been involved in planning, managing and evaluating many of these over the past ten years. The industry has spent hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion, in training, drilling, creating plans and driving this system deep into their organizations. As a result of all this work, industry response professionals and agency response managers learned to work together side-by-side in close collaboration. Extensive technology was developed to support the complex operations, technologies aimed at managing the ICS process with all its forms and procedures as well as managing the Joint Information Center and all its processes and requirements. That was the system I created, called PIER for Public Information Emergency Response. The Joint Information Center proved very effective in providing a coordinated information response enabling the media (and increasingly the public directly through incident websites) to get the best possible information, as quickly as possible from a single authoritative source.

Of course, that "single voice" didn't necessarily play to the media's interest in the blame game they inevitably must play. Here were the key players all standing side-by-side, providing the same information, not pointing fingers, not accusing the others, but working in concert in the public's interest to get the job done.

In 2004 the Department of Homeland Security, under a presidential directive to create a national response structure, implemented the Incident Command System as that national response plan. It was one of the smarter things government has done. They didn't reinvent the wheel, instead used something that was working exceptionally well and that many federal, state, local agencies and a few private companies had adopted and trained on already. DHS has invested billions in making this system effective and making certain that agencies at all levels use this system and prepare their responders to work in it effectively.

So far, so good. So why is it threatened?

The Deepwater Horizon event (that is what it was officially named by Unified Command at the beginning and all events require an official and single name), began as a typical NIMS/ICS event. BP, as the largest shareholder of the well with three owners, was named the Responsible Party. That means they were responsible for paying the bill and participating in the Unified Command structure. Unified Command was formed with the Federal On-Scene Coordinator as the Coast Guard and other agencies participating in accordance with OPA 90 and NIMs. A National Incident Commander was named as this was the first Spill of National Significance since that was designated again as part of OPA 90.

As is called for in all the plans, a Joint Information Center was set up as soon as Unified Command was formed. All the agencies came together, including BP, to unify the communications operation using PIER as the communication system that all would operate on. the years of experience that the Coast Guard and BP had with the system was a strong benefit in getting the JIC off to a strong start. Under NIMS and ICS rules, Unified Command has the final authority over all information released. No one involved in the response--no government agency, no private party, no contractor, no research vessel, no one -- is to communicate outside of that structure. It is the only way of insuring a "single voice" and maintaining information discipline. The Sago Mine disaster was one example of where the loss of information discipline was exceedingly painful and caused unnecessary distress when JIC rules were broken. On the PIER JIC website, the logos of all the response agencies were displayed along with BP as the Responsible Party (RP in ICS lingo).

That is, until Sec. Napolitano arrived a couple of days into the event. Suddenly all agency logos were removed, the event was renamed the BP Oil Spill, and the messaging from Unified Command starting taking on a strategic intent to innoculate any federal agency from any blame and to focus all media scrutiny and public outrage on BP. While the logos returned a few hours later, I'm assuming after the Secretary was informed of how the National Incident Management System that her agency promulgates is supposed to work, and the original incident name response, the use of Unified Command for political messaging has never stopped from that point.

As I pointed out earlier, this messaging has gone through a couple of phases. First, the administration tried to avoid any blame by saying it was all on BP and it was the administration's job to hold them accountable and put a boot on their neck. This was in direct opposition to the reality on the ground which was a Unified Command response all along, under the direct control of the coordinated federal agencies. But not a single reporter picked up on this. This shows how hopelessly out of touch the media are with the realities of NIMS and what Unified Command means. No one, none, challenge this strategy by even asking what the National Incident Commander was there for or asking what the role of a Federal On-Scene Coordinator was. Nor did they seem able to put two and two together to ask a question that if BP was doing everything, why are so many people in uniform so visible?

But what the administration apparently didn't anticipate, aside from the fundamental dishonesty of this message, is that the calls would increase for the federal government to take over the response. Why are they letting BP run this thing when it clearly is failing? Why isn't Obama stepping in to take charge. The pressure mounted until on May 28 at a press conference the president announced that well, actually, the federal government was in charge all along. Oh, said the press corp. The first question (and one of the first insightful ones) was if that is the case, why did the EPA send the letter to BP asking them to find different dispersants if the federal government was managing the response, including the use of dispersants all along? Exactly.

In the days since May 28, BP has been pushed from the scene publicly as far as communication is concerned. Now the federal government stands alone in the media appearances. And Unified Command messages have become more and more political in tone even while they continue to do their best to get the relevant information out about the event and the response activities. What do I mean by taking over the Unified Command messaging? Here is the primary release from the Unified Command on June 4:

Speaking alongside federal officials and Gulf Coast governors, the President sharply criticized BP for spending money on a public relations campaign.
“I don’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations,” the President said. “But I want BP to be very clear—they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done. And what I don’t want to hear is, when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they’re nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.”

I have no objection whatsoever to this kind of messaging being issued by the White House media machine--it is perfectly appropriate for the president to say whatever he wants. But to use Unified Command as an adjunct to the White House communication operation means that Unified Command will likely never again be trusted by any private company or public agency that does want its reputation to reside in the hands of the administration.

What makes this doubly troublesome is the fact that BP has been very aggressive in claims management and a Unified Command release a day or two before this reported that BP had to date paid every claim it had been able to process. Not a single claim was denied and the announcement had just been made that BP had agreed to additional loss of income payments going forward. The accusation about nickling and diming was unfair and inappropriate if done from the Rose Garden, but to be done using the communication machinery of Unified Command will likely have long term devastating consequences.

Further, BP's so-called PR campaign is to focus attention on the response website. While the media has been playing the administration's game in lockstep, even while desperately seeking every day for a scoop to further inflame public outrage, those who get their information from the response website do have a substantially different picture of the response than those who get their information only from the media. I discovered this anecdotally when discussing the response. If someone was entirely negative about BP and the response, I asked if they had been to the website or subscribed to the updates. Those who had been to the site regularly were more critical of the media coverage, and those who had not were only critical of the response. Why wouldn't BP in those circumstances want the public to know about this information source. The media was not pointing people to the site. Why would the administration find it a problem to want people to get their information directly rather than filtered through the media whose job is to get eyes on their screen every day on this story? And especially when the administration has highjacked the Joint Information Center and is using it for their political messages?

Yes, I am deeply disturbed about the future of the National Incident Management System, ICS, and the JIC. Since I am personally involved right now in writing plans for several of the major urban areas of the nation for how they come together in a major event to communicate in a coordinated way, it is a very relevant issue. What do I say to the Mayor's office of a major city when they realize that if it is in the current administration's best interest to focus the media' blame game on them to avoid any blame falling on the administration, how can I convince them that they should stay within the information discipline bounds of NIMS? Since I'm also writing plans for other major oil companies, how can those plans be focused on participation in the JIC when it is most likely in a major event for that very tool to be used to an extreme degree against them and even used to criticize their own efforts to communicate how they are responding?

If there are others working on such plans and wondering what this means for your agencies,your regions or your company's crisis communication plans under the National Incident Management System, I'd like to hear from you. Hopefully you can reassure me that it is not a significant issue, that I am reading this wrong, that once the "BP Spill" is over that life under NIMS will return to normal. However, if you are also concerned perhaps we can begin the discussion at some senior policy levels as to how to prevent this catastrophe (not talking about the spill here) from happening again.