An ICS Expert Weighs In

Have I got a treat for you! Gary Oldham, an expert in many things response-related, including ICS, who has been doing work in this field for almost as long as I’ve been alive has contributed a comment to our ongoing discussion on the role of public information in the ICS structure. See below for the full post:

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.

Truly thought-provoking. Thanks so much for your contribution, Gary.

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3 thoughts on “An ICS Expert Weighs In

  1. I agree with Gary, but the one thing he didn’t address was monitoring social media and then integrated that situational awareness information/intel (if you will) back into the response. My concern is that this job can’t properly be done by the JIC. They tend to look at information through a PR lens versus a intelligence gathering lens. I do think ICS might need some adjustments in order for this new job to be done properly. Law enforcement does a pretty good job listening/mining for information because the public can help find the whereabouts of a missing person, or identify the location of a suspect, but we in the emergency management world do not have “asking Joe-Public” as part of our culture. Our culture is-“stand back, we’ll take care of this”. I’d like to see a shift from merely monitoring to actually mining. We need to trust the public to give us information and we need to establish those relationships long before a crisis. Its more than just moving boxes around on a chart, its a culture shift that will way more difficult to implement.

  2. Kim – I admire your ability to nail the real issue in a single sentence (vs. my long rambling diatribe…) “It’s more than just moving boxes around on a chart, it’s a culture shift that will (be) way more difficult to implement.” You nailed it there. I think there’s a lot more than one thing I didn’t mention, but you’re absolutely right about my not mentioning integrating situational awareness back into the incident. In my mind, there’s most definitely a role there for the Intelligence function. But also the Information function, particularly to take full advantage of the engagement aspect of social media, particularly in terms of addressing concerns of residents or other stakeholders, rumor control, etc. Like so many things, I think the concept of JIC is fundamentally sound, but all too often the problem lie in the implementation. Your assessment of JIC looking at information from a PR lens is far too often spot on, and that’s not helpful in getting straightforward, accurate, and unfiltered information out (I acknowledge there are certain aspects of information that are sensitive for one reason or another and shouldn’t be released with abandon).I think a part of the solution organizationally – and this presumes a cultural sea change that allows for ANY of this to take place effectively – is to have functions within Information that solely tend to social media, in close communication with the Information Officer, and in a collaborative way with Intelligence for two-way sharing and vetting of inbound and outbound information.Great addition & discussion; thank you!

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