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The Problem with the Incident Management System

March 8, 2010

Through a weird convergence of events (or maybe Gerald Baron reads my “to write about” list), last week, the Crisisblogger hosted a guest post by Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd about how Incident Command, as it’s traditionally practiced, is not the best way to handle public information during a crisis response. In response to the 24/7 news cycle and immediate news dissemination happening on social media platforms, PIOs can no longer craft short press releases, get them approved and release them to the collected media.

This sentiment is echoed in an article recently published in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (my new friends over at JHSEM want me to remind you that you can access this article by logging in, or by springing for an individual subscription to their journal). The article has a name I wish I thought of: The Elephant in the JIC: The Fundamental Flaw of Emergency Public Information within the NIMS Framework.

The article talks about how difficult it is for NIMS to support emergency communication with the public. The author’s description of NIMS:

NIMS was built on the foundation of formally organized command, control, and approval of all emergency actions

sort of clashes with the author’s description of social media:

[S]ocial media was built on open, organic, and informal response.

The author feels:

[I]t is fairly self-evident that the Incident Commander’s approval of messages and/or information disseminated through social media outlets is extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible.

I feel that this disconnect, which the author makes very well (with examples!), is reminiscent of the problems with crisis and emergency risk communication (CERC) and NIMS.

In CERC, the three most important tenets are (1) be first, (2) be credible, and (3) be right. While these are all goals that Incident Commanders would obviously support, they are wholly dependant on early, constant, repetitious (yet constantly changing) and multi-faceted messaging. Crisis communicators will tell you that the very first thing to do is to acknowledge the situation and let folks know that you’re responding. Some of the more progressive thinkers in CERC feel that it’s recommended to say something like, “we’re not sure exactly how bad it is, or how big it is, or who’s affected,” but do you know any ICs who would approve a first message that essentially reads, “I don’t know what’s happening?” Taking just that as the whole message, I wouldn’t approve it either, but the key part of CERC is that as you learn more, you update and push out your message again. “We now know that it’s contained within the immediate area, etc.” Your updates should be short, direct and constant. Through this constant stream of information, the communicator gains credibility and an audience.

The NIMS model, however, is predicated on the situation update. Some mustachioed fellow with stars on his shoulders, or a well-cut suit, hears the latest from all four of his section chiefs and members of his Command Staff, walks briskly to the podium and delivers the latest. Public information stops for the next hour or so until the next briefing. Which works! Well, when the only way your audience can get their information is through the local and national broadcasts. If you have citizen journalists using social media tools giving briefings in between your scheduled pressers  however – you’re not really controlling the message anymore.

Of course, the only real way around that is to have your star-studded IC let you or the JIC push out messages in between briefings. But, don’t you think he’s got better things to do than approve your tweet that reads, “Thanks for your question, we haven’t seen that happening on scene,” or “The fire looks to be spreading down Maple, probably best if you get out now.” Just there, I officially squashed a rumor and may have saved the lives of folks waffling about evacuating. These are important messages, obviously, yet not so important to call a press conference. Social media, however, is a great way to get these messages out. But the question remains, who approves sending these messages out? The guy ordering a captain to set up a staging area? That’s a bit unrealistic, so you see the problem.

The article author recommends that DHS, under the direction of FEMA, should address this immediately convening emergency managers, social media experts, senior first responders and governmental communicators experienced in social media usage. And I couldn’t agree more. If it hasn’t been already, this will be a problem. Emergencies will get worse because of a lack of information flowing from the JIC/EOC. Rumors will spread rampantly before being addressed meekly in a press conference geared toward situation updates.

I don’t think NIMS is wrong. I think NIMS needs to adapt. Adapt to a world where I can ask – reasonably – if you’d ever consider posting YouTube video updates directly from the JIC, or streaming live video updates via UStream or Qik, or hosting a live Q&A over Twitter?

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