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.

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