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. BP.com 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.

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