Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Musings on PIOs, the IMS and ESF-15

I had the occasion last week to take part in a webinar on how the communications response to the Deepwater Horizon incident was conducted. As always, Gerald Baron from PIERSystems did a masterful job of leading the debrief on how the Joint Information Centre (JIC) used their particular piece of technology to communicate with all their audiences.
(see here for a full report: http://idisaster.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/communnications-management-during-the-bp-oil-spill-response-a-report/ )

Our world is moving so fast that it's becoming harder and harder for those who plan the delivery of emergency information (EI) to keep up. Gerald told us about the popularity of live feeds (streaming) and other resource-intensive tools that they used to great success. Our audiences now expect us to go above and beyond the traditional release or old, stale ways of providing EI.

But where do we draw the line between doing all we can and cost efficiency? That's a question for another day perhaps.

From a distant (and distinctly Canadian perspective), I think, overall, the whole response of the JIC during the Deepwater Horizon incident was handled magnificently on a technical standpoint. The people running the JIC made wonderful use of a wide variety of tools and channels, through a great piece of kit.

What proved to be more difficult was the actual continued integration of all the key partners into the Unified Command (UC), especially in the latter stage of the response. To be blunt, and to reflect the general thinking, the UC worked well as long as the politicians stayed away and refrained from commenting on operational issues or focusing on responsibility and distancing themselves from other key partners involved in the response.

It's a fact, the professionals assembled by BP, the Coast Guard and many others, did a great job to coordinate a vast response and do what had to be done. That was also reflected in the operations of the JIC ... the "mouthpiece" of the UC.
This made the job of delivering EI a bit easier .... although there were always going to be great difficulties because of the nature of this specific incident.

Things started to go awry when messaging with political overtones became more and more present ... often originating from the federal government ... on behalf of whom the Coast Guard was coordinating the UC. When the blame game became more important than operational solutions (although there's no denying BP's responsibility in the incident) ... the whole concept of the JIC was threatened and the UC as well.

When BP was the subject of a sustained "us versus them approach" by the other key partner in the UC ... messaging drew more and more garbled or misleading ...http://ww2.crisisblogger.com/?p=1244

How are we supposed to keep messages coordinated and uniform while key partners in the response are being drawn into an ever growing battle to have their side of the story heard?

That lesson about the critical functions of the IMS (NIMS) and coordination was not lost on the man Washington put in charge of the incident. Admiral Allen from the Coast Guard had his own conclusions:

When the UC and the JIC become fractured ... what's the outlook for the IMS?

I'm positive that this lack of a unified voice played a large role in shaping the vastly negative perception of the response ... If the powers that are, abandon or don't understand the value/concept of the IMS, UC and the JIC, how will professional emergency managers and communicators be able to do their job in a coherent and collaborative manner?

I believe the time may have come to separate some functions normally associated with Public Information Officers (PIOs) under the IMS/ICS and some of the responsibilities that fall under ESF-15.

On large-scale events/incidents, often involving the creation of a UC, different orders of government, multiple agencies and the private sector, shouldn't the PIO and the JIC focus on EI? ... That is, providing operationally-oriented information for audiences affected by the incident (evac orders, ops update, etc.) ?

In such large-scale incidents, the more stakeholder/liaison-oriented functions (often outlined in ESF-15) ... what could be described as "selling" the response .... the PR component ... Does this side of the PIO's work need to be given to someone else?

While the PR game is on (or is that the blame game?) the PIO should concentrate on operational requirements ...

Frankly I'm not too sure how to handle this. Who should do this PR job?
Do we need another position in the UC structure?

When does an incident become complex or large enough to warrant such a measure? I'm not naive enough to think we can eliminate all political considerations as part of our jobs as PIOs. There will always be such a component.

I believe it's up to emergency management professionals to "educate" the political class on the tenets of the IMS/ICS. Involve them in exercises and planning activities. Build up some familiarity with the doctrine, the plans and the people ... so that when an incident occurs ... the politicians (and their staff) will know where they stand ...

As always, I'm very interested in hearing from you. Thanks!

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