Thursday, March 11, 2010

Is it true that whoever owns the JIC website owns the JIC?

Way back in 1999, during the Olympic Pipeline disaster and my first major exposure to ICS and the Joint Information Center, JIC websites were just coming into play. Incident information was primarily about feeding the reporters who fed the hungry public and everyone else. That has all changed. The internet is rapidly becoming THE way that the public gets information--and certainly has become the most significant way that key stakeholders get information about an incident. The JIC website in many ways has become the most significant means of communicating with the public, stakeholders, internal audiences and even those involved in the response.

As a member of the JIC way back in 1999, this was already an issue for me. The website used for the Olympic response was the County's website. Only one person had any access which meant that if anything were put on it, it had to go through her. And she would not respond to any requests except those that came from her boss directly. Clearly he wanted it that way, but he was neither the incident commander nor the PIO. The site was branded as the County so communication coming from that was not seen as response information directly.

I developed the PIER System after that with this problem being one of many that it would solve. It would allow access to anyone and everyone authorized as a member of the JIC. It would be "owned" by the response and fully and completely accountable only to the PIO and through the PIO, Incident Command. No one could claim control over other than the official incident organization under ICS and now NIMS rules.

In recent conversations with PIOs from major agencies--from the state to the federal level--it is clear that this incident-ownership and NIMS compliant approach to the JIC website is not clearly understood. There is an on-going battle in many if not most multi-agency responses over who owns and controls the website or websites used from the response. Agency leaders and even more, agency IT leaders, are extremely reluctant to allow anyone but their agency staff to have access to the agency's website even when it is used in a JIC.

A case in point: major wildfires in California. The US Forest Service, CalFire and local fire departments all respond depending on the real estate involved. US Forest Service has InciWeb--a Forest Service proprietary system. CalFire has its own incident website. The fire departments all have theirs. What happens when they form unified command? Who's site becomes the JIC site? Given the IT regulations around each of these, no one except the agency people can manage content on the site, no one from the JIC except agency people have access. That means one agency controls the site content and, given the extreme importance today of the JIC website, controls the information. This doesn't work.

A JIC website absolutely must be a "Switzerland" system. It must allow secure access to only authorized JIC members but it must allow access to all JIC members who have a role in managing the content. It cannot go through a single agency and be NIMS compliant in the same way that agencies cannot dictate that their PIO will serve as the response PIO anytime they are involved. They cannot do that, but they are violating NIMS which specifies that the IC has the authority to appoint the PIO and to select on the basis of qualification and experience without regard to agency or seniority.

The battle over who "owns" and therefore controls the JIC website seems to be heating up. I think that is due to the growing understanding that the incident site is the focal point for media, public, stakeholder and internal information. But whatever website you are planning to use for your JIC, you must insure that only Command through the PIO has control over its content and that to be NIMS compliant and efficient, JIC members from any agency must have full and complete control over it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Austin Plane Crash--On the Frontlines of a Virtual Communication Response

For several in days in February the major news story was the crash of a small plane into a building in Austin, Texas. This is the kind of event that is discussed here on this blog all the time and I was fortunate to have a front row seat of sorts to the public communication and news coverage of this particular event.

The City of Austin, specifically the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, is a new client having recently implemented our crisis communication system. While the agency’s website was set up on this platform and ready to roll, the agency’s PIO had little experience in working with the system. To make matters worse she, like several others from the office were in San Antonio for the Homeland Security conference.

I was sitting in a meeting in Houston when I was called out and informed that there was a plane crash into a building in Austin. The initial information we received, not from the City, was that the building may have housed FBI offices. The specter of a terrorist attack was immediately raised. We made contact with the PIO who was on her way back to Austin from San Antonio. We quickly informed her of the information that was being broadcast and that was coming via Twitter. She confirmed some of the information from her sources and we placed an initial statement on the City’s OEM website—from Houston.

For the next day and half we continued in almost continual contact and pushed out a total of nine information releases. Since the city staff were out of their offices and away from their normal tools and systems, they could not push the information to their normal media lists. But we quickly built an up-to-date media list of all Austin media and distributed the releases to them. These were in addition to the almost 400 contacts of Austin area agency contacts and other officials that had been built into the platform.

There were several times during the incident that we were able to report back through the PIO new information that was emerging on Twitter. This information would quickly find its way into the news coverage which had geared up with remarkable speed.

The various agencies from the City of Austin soon formed a Joint Information Center using the OEM site as the focus of new information. News reports began to reflect a coordinated flow of information from the City. Clearly the most significant communication came from the several press conferences held at the scene of the crash and fire. But the PIO was able to maintain the relevant information on the website by calling us from the press conference and we would quickly add and update the information on the site. Plus the agency was able to very quickly and efficiently distribute updates on the fast breaking situation to the media as well as to numerous agency leaders and others in the Austin community.

I say “we” because those involved in supporting Austin remotely during this event included Kevin Boxx, VP PIER Systems and Timothy O’Leary, my colleague at O’Briens’s Response Management. Direct support was also provided by Sandra Salazar, PIER’s Project Manager located in Houston who was at a different location than we were. Geoff Baron at PIER’s HQ in Bellingham, WA also provided direct assistance.

Some key learnings from this event:

- Austin Police and Fire have received some strong kudos for their fast and effective crisis communication during this event—both from people within the community and from experts outside observing.

- Virtual communication operation, or the Virtual JIC, does indeed work as has been demonstrated in other events. But this event was particularly telling because of the speed of information flow between the PIO and those on the scene and those operating remotely to keep the updates going.

- Twitter and other social media are no doubt driving the information about an event of this nature. Reports coming from Twitter were almost concurrent with the event as some early “tweets” were from people witnessing the event as it occurred.

- Major media use Twitter and other social media as primary sources of news. When you see “reports” or “eye witness reports” in the media coverage do not think it is that they have talked to someone directly but are likely getting it from the many tweets or posts on the internet.

- The initial reports are virtually certain to be wrong—that is the nature of the internet and witnesses commenting from their perspective and speculating. But it is quite amazing to see how the online community sorts things out and gets to the facts faster than you would imagine.

- Where it used to be that official sources would be the primary focus of the media’s interest a quick review of the media coverage will show that a primary interest of the media is to talk to eyewitnesses—often those same people who are reporting what they see or know (or speculations) via the internet.

- PIOs and public officials have to scramble very, very hard to keep up with, let alone try to get ahead of, this kind of instant information coming from so many sources. As the official source of the news about the event, their primary role becomes rumor management—correct false information as it emerges—rather than focusing on being the first with the news.

Congratulations are due to Candice Wade and the team at Austin for a job well done in very difficult circumstances.

Monday, March 1, 2010

An Incident Commander asks: Does ICS mean Information Communications Standstill?

I'm so pleased to present a guest post from Bill Boyd, a very experienced Incident Commander and currently Fire Chief for the City of Bellingham, WA. I first met Bill almost 10 years ago when he was the initial PIO for the Olympic Pipeline explosion and I was coming into the command center as a PIO under contract to the pipeline company. Since then I've gained great respect for his ability as a clear-thinking incident commander with considerable experience in major events far beyond responding to fires in our fair city. I've known that Bill has an in-depth understanding of the reality of today's instant information and social media world so I invited him to take advantage of Crisis Comm to speak to fellow ICs and PIOs. And what he says here I wish could be forwarded and sent to every Incident Commander and PIO in the country.

Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile. I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted. The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event. As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone. If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it). The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job. As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?). In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available. Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many. Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

ICs need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information. If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event? If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information. It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.

Department of Defense Faces Social Media Reality

In 2007 the Pentagon block access to a number of internet sites and social media channels. More recently in August 2009 the Marines prohibited members of the Corps from using sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Some of the reasons given were understandable (others were bogus). These sites facilitate exceptional levels of transparency and immediacy. Members of the military deal with a lot of information that is best if it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Any of us concerned about the security of our nations, communities and families have a vested interest in those having high value secrets keeping them secret.

But, this blocking policy was Peter putting his finger in the dike. Banning use of social media channels seemed tantamount to banning email or telephones given that these are great ways of communicating with our enemies. It struck me as it did many others that it represented decisions made at the top by security officials and military leaders who, if not Luddites, were at least out of touch with the real world.

That is all changed. The DoD has just released new policies that don't prohibit use of these social media channels and also open up military organizations to make use of internet applications. It replaces a "head in the sand" ban with reasonable and very important policies about protection of infrastructure and protection of classified information. That is the way it should be. You don't protect the nation's security interest by eliminating channels of communication. Better put the military personnel in closed boxes if you want to do that. But you do want to make it crystal clear to those military personnel and others with access to sensitive information what the consequences are for bad judgment in their use. I trust that there will be soon some very visible examples made of military personnel who have abused, misused or in other ways violated the policy. I hope for our national security purposes the examples are very visible. But congratulations to our nation's military leadership in taking this important and logical step forward.