In ICS, Does Public Information Belong in the Command Staff?

Crisisblogger Gerald Baron had a New Year’s Agenda post up right before the holiday that I really enjoyed. As with all of his musings, I highly recommend you take a few moments and read it over.

One of his top issues really resonated with me, and is something that I’ve been thinking about since the Deepwater Horizon disaster last spring and summer.

  1. Operation and communication functions coming together.

In the past, the public communication function through the EA Officer or PIO was largely separated from operations. Not any longer. See point 2. Public participation and active involvement in response decisions, such as deployment of key resources, is changing the very nature of operational response management. Through social media, a hyper-aggressive media, Billy Nungesser-type local political leadership, the line between the response organization and the citizens its serves is getting very fuzzy. Communication leaders who know their stuff will be key to managing this kind of involvement and will become an increasingly vital part of the Command staff.

As I watched that event unfold, I couldn’t help but be struck by the intricate dance between Operations and the JIC. To be completely honest, it was this relationship that germinated the seed that ultimately grew into this blog. No matter how well the operational response was going, the public’s perception (fed by the mass media) was of massive failure.

While such a disconnect occasionally happens, in this case the public’s frustration manifesting in ways that could have (may have) negatively affected operations. Responders cleaning up the shorelines had to deal with spectators, journalists and citizen-journalists intent on seeing how BP was destroying the environment. I remember, in particular, one reporter submerging himself in oil to show how much was present on the shoreline. Not only was this dangerous for the reporter, but if a responder was there and tried to intervene, it’s very likely they would have been hurt. All of this, just because people believed that BP wasn’t doing everything they could have.

I started to think back to my ICS training, about where ICS came from and why it was structured as it is. Those of us who have taken weeks of our lives to learn the ins and outs of ICS know that it came about as a result of poor coordination to widespread wildfire response in California in the 1970’s. During a particularly bad season, firefighters from across the West were called in to assist with the response. The result was multiple chiefs not accountable to anyone, confusion in terminology, and a lack of overall coordination. People died as a result of poor coordination. Thus, ICS was developed to help better organize multi-agency, multi-jurisdiction emergencies—and especially the ramp-up from normal operations to emergency operations. It’s actually rather ingenious, if you understand the theory and implementation. I’m quite in awe.

Now, think about the information needs of the time. News happened at 6pm, 11pm, and 5am the next morning. Updates on wildfires included the name of the fire, estimates of how much it’s spread and how contained it is, and if any buildings are threatened. On the risk communication side of things, there may be an evacuation call as well. Unless it threatened a movie star’s house or took lives, it didn’t really affect the national media.

Contrast that with today’s media, and citizen-media, where you have thousands of news-makers with virtually unlimited reach reporting on your every step—and misstep. And this isn’t just for huge events, it happens during traffic stops and political fundraisers and routine press conferences and during snow emergencies.

I advance the idea that today’s media environment is completely different than the media environment that ICS was developed in. Aside from increasing capacity (see: incorporation of the Joint Information Center, media center and ESF 15), there has been no fundamental change in how PIOs act within the ICS structure. I wonder if the change in how the world interacts with the public information component of modern organized response should necessitate changes in how modern organized response creates and disseminates public information. Has public information become part of operational response?

I’ve talked with colleagues at the local and federal level about this idea, (start ICS) about moving public information out of the Command staff and placing them under the Operations Chief (end ICS). No one thought it was a good idea. They felt that the direct relationship between the Incident Commander (IC) and PIO was vital to speed information releases. But I find that there is already talk in social media circles about how getting social media messages approved by the IC is too slow, so I don’t see how that relationship will continue to be sacred.

So, this is where I stand. I think that public information is increasingly an operational part of disaster response (and that’s not even talking about how operationally vital public information is during a public health emergency). I wonder if segregating Operations and public information could threaten both efforts.

This is obviously not very well fleshed out, and I’m not even sure it’s a good idea. But I think that if someone like Gerald Baron is hinting at it, there might just be something to this crazy way of thinking.

I always appreciate feedback, but especially in this case I encourage it. Please comment below, send me an email, or reach out to me on Twitter.


4 thoughts on “In ICS, Does Public Information Belong in the Command Staff?”

  1. I agree that the challenges are numerous and social media presents many. However, by putting emergency or public information under operations would limit its usefulness. I’d keep it a command position to ensure that the PIO has the opportunity to get the whole picture and interact with higher level echelons that interact with the IC. To deal with the challenges brought by social media in terms of immediacy of a communications response you need a sound crisis comms plan with pre-approved messaging and the right channels to communicate quickly and effectively with all your audiences. No need to do that from the ops section …Much better, because it’s a more and more operational AND liaison function, to keep it with command instead of moving it under ops.

  2. Jim,I think your instinct regarding the need of ICS to adapt to the modern news or “information exchange” environment is sound – but I think that adaptation should address how the Ops Section can use social media primarily to feed and inform the PIO/JIC (vs. moving the PIO/JIC into Ops). One of if not the principle function of the JIC is to provide coordinated and unified messaging to the public that supports the overall strategy – and that insight has to come from the IC. For example, the IC wouldn’t want the Public Works department to independently send out a Tweet that a road is clear and open, because the IC may want it to remain closed to the public so it’s available exclusively to emergency responders.That said, there may very well be instances where part of the IC’s strategy is for individuals or units within Ops to assist with situational awareness or promote a targeted / tactical message by using SM within a clearly defined set of parameters. An example might be an SM post from the field that “responders still clearing slide on Hwy X, area remains hazardous.” This on-the-spot responder initiated report feeds the information beast, while supporting the general message of “stay away, let us do our job.” What and how those parameters are established is the key challenge, obviously.ICS took a long time to develop within the fire service, a longer time to adapt for the general emergency response community, and there’s still much more work to be done as it spreads out to the non-traditional responder community (schools, hospitals, public health, etc.). The incorporation of SM is just one albeit an important element in how ICS will continue to evolve. Just as we’ve seen how the “intel” function has morphed into a “put it where it makes sense” element, so too may SM emerge. But given the go-slow approach with how the Feds tweak ICS (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), I wouldn’t expect social media to show up under the Ops section as it very own box anytime soon. If anything, I see certain enlightened ICs perceiving as using it as tool (i.e. radio, shovel, dosimeter, etc.) , versus an independent function.Marcus

  3. Let me start out with some full disclosure. I was pretty heavily involved in the fairly early days of ICS’s evolution as part of Project FIRESCOPE in California. I’ve served in a lot of ICS roles, including that of PIO (and initially when I filled that role – long, long ago – it was called FIO, for Fire Information Officer. And back then, Operations was called “Suppression and Rescue.” This was back before we recognized the “all-hazards” value of ICS.) Because of that, perhaps, I tend to be protective, perhaps over-protective of ICS.The ideas presented here merit a lot of thought and sole searching. I tend to initially reject out of hand ideas that involve major overhauling of ICS. The beauty of ICS is its scalability and indeed its all-hazards nature and applicability. But we need to be open to the idea that we may need to do some revamping at some point.I’m not sure this is it, though. I continue to believe the fundamentals, the underpinnings, of ICS are as solid today as they were in 1980. We’re better at using it than we were then. But we need to do some things differently, and information dissemination is certainly one of those. I’m a big proponent of social media in emergency management and public safety, and SM can certainly be a tool in the Information Officer’s toolkit within ICS. If there are things that impede information flow and release, they need to be fixed. Systemically if that’s where the problem resides, or on an individual incident or incident commander basis where appropriately. If IC approval is unduly slowing information release, then that incident needs some standing orders about how/when/and by whom information is going to be released so that routine releases don’t need specific IC approval. If there’s a trust issue there between the IC and PIO, that needs rectifying – through some candid dialog, through some accelerated approval processes that let each person get a feel for the others abilities and sensibilities, and a mutual effort. Items that are more sensitive – names of injured or killed, for but one example – may need specific approval, and working protocols can easily allow for that. None of these things require that ICS change; its framework certainly allows for protocols like these to be quickly implemented.I watched the Deepwater Horizon debacle often in agony at how ICS had been bastardized and then criticized for its inadequacies. ICS was fine. NIMS added some useful things – like the Multi-Agency Coordination Center function, which is tremendous when done properly (as it was back in the 80s and 90s in California, where hard resource allocation decisions were made quickly, judiciously, and fairly by involved stakeholders). The Joint Information is another NIMS aspect that can be a good thing – or not, when done improperly. But the real bastardization of ICS came from the “oil spill version” that gives the violator, the causal agent, the “responsible party” (in law enforcement, we usually called them “the suspect”) a seat at the command table. In my mind, that’s where the Deepwater Horizon management effort reached the “success is impossible” threshhold. You can’t have parties with diametrically opposed agendas and goals sitting at the table with equal authority and reach a result that satisfies both parties. We really don’t need, in my mind, “versions” of ICS for oil spills, hospitals, schools, etc. ICS lets an incident or an organization fill roles as needed for their particular situation; it doesn’t require a separate “version.” And in no case, should “responsible parties” OR “suspects” get an equal say in how an incident is managed, OR how/what information is disseminated.I think the closing sentence in this essay really hits the crux of the issues: “I see certain enlightened ICs perceiving as using it as tool (i.e. radio, shovel, dosimeter, etc.) , versus an independent function.” I completely agree – and I believe “enlightened” is the operative word. An enlightened IC working with a savvy PIO doesn’t need ICS’ framework to be altered, he or she just needs to recognize that ICS is a tool, too, and it is a flexible tool that allows these goals to be achieved within its existing framework. I don’t think ICS needs modernization – I think many of US do.Thanks for this thought-provoking essay, and for the opportunity to weigh in on it.

  4. The distinction between Public Affairs and Emergency Public Information may help add clarity!The organization incorporating technical info into PARs and PADs must be part of the Command structure and not independent. This is highlyt technical subject and looking forwards to you writing more about about it! Great post by the way!

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