Via Crisis Comm: Public Warnings–PIO or Operations?

A couple of weeks ago, Gerald Baron posted on an ongoing discussion about who does emergency notification. Is it the folks in Operations (with all of the cool gear) or the folks in the JIC (with their tiny laptops) whose job it is to give the public the very first warning that somethings up?

Our Ops folks have traditionally had the job of sounding the alarm bell. And at many levels, it makes sense. Your Operations staff are amongst the first activated, so they’re most likely to be responding when the notification needs to be sent. Besides which, Ops can coordinate the public’s movements to jive with their operations. The problem is that your public information folks sitting in the JIC will conduct all communications with the public aside from that initial notification. In fact, my favorite document in the whole world, the FEMA TCL, says that the public alert function should be done by the PIO.

Now, as much as this blog has focused on these types of issues, the whole issue is problematic. Many times this discussion revolves around issues of control and ego. I’m a communicator at heart, so my thought is that this role is primarily a public information role. I take pride in the work that we do and think we do it better than most. We should control the whole message. Operations folks probably believe the same. And you know what? If my IC pulls that function out of the JIC and gives it to the Ops folks, I’m going to wonder who she trusts more: them or me.

At the end of the day, though, the job needs to get done come ego, hell or high water. Hell and high water are more difficult to deal with, but ego can be worked on provided it gets worked on soon. Gerald thinks, and I agree, that the best way to handle that is to shorten the distance between the players. Public information needs to work closely with Ops. There is a legitimate blurring of their roles, so they should be able to pinch hit for each other. Besides which, the more interaction there is between Ops and public info, the more they can learn to trust each other.

And hopefully it’ll just be hell and high water between us.


3 thoughts on “Via Crisis Comm: Public Warnings–PIO or Operations?

  1. Hello Jim. Interesting debate. My ownl belief is that ops (since they usually have a duty officer on 24/7) is better suited to issue the initial alert. PIOs then follow up with info very quickly. But that’s not a set in cement.What’s more important is the continuum of information …what happens after that initial alert message? How soon can you occupy the public space and offer valuable info or at least links to it for your audiences?Certainly has to be thought of way ahead of time. No time to improvise a comms response at 3 am on Sunday morning.

  2. Another thoughtful post, Jim. I think you’ve hit on some important points here. Some lines are blurring, but it’s always OK to collaborate and cooperate. Patrice also has a good point on Ops issuing the initial alert followed up by Information. It’s not unlike transitioning the IC role as jurisdiction changes or the magnitude of the event evolves.It’s also OK to do it collaboratively. Taking Patrice’s comment into account that Ops is virtuallly always 24/7 while Information may not be in the early stages of an event, you certainly don’t want to delay getting a timely alert out. But if Ops and Information are both available at the time, collaboration can be a big help. Ops can frame the message – what’s the magnitude, who is the proper audience, what’s the time frame you’re working with, what’s the call to action, etc. Information can help frame the message in a way that it’ll be understood by the media and public, help minimize ambiguity and chance for confusion/misinterpretation, etc., will have the best contact information for the media, likely have the best access tools for any automated citizen alert systems, etc. Working together, they can get the right message to the right people at the right time in the right way. That’s a best case scenario, I’ll admit, but when possible, that collaboration and synergy will be far more effective than either party operating in a vacuum. ICS (and for that matter, internal job descriptions) can dictate who has the responsibility to do something. That doesn’t mean you can’t work with somebody (anybody!) else who can help you get that job done better or faster

  3. Thanks guys for the great responses. It’s seems like a simple thing, just work together and start today, right?I think that the call of who does notification and how much coordination there should be depends on the type of emergency. In a tornado situation, the person closest to the “send” button should hit it, I don’t care what they do. In a public health emergency situation the trigger for hitting the alarm bell is much more subtle, so I’d argue that there should be extensive collaboration crafting the message.In all situations, though, I argue that much of this collaboration can/should happen way before the question of should I/shouldn’t I comes up. Advance planning can answer most of those questions. The problem, though, is the same as you both noted: getting folks to work together.

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