Tuesday, April 3, 2012

New info requirements: time to change the IMS structure?

Over the last weekend, a few #smem practitioners (@chiefb2, @brianhumphrey, @cherylble, @sct_r, others) and I engaged in a bit of discussion on the real place of the PIO in the Incident Management Structure. 

I believe (along with others ... such as Frank Cowan) that information needs are as important as planning, logistics, operations and fin/admin. In other words, emergency info needs its own box in the IMS/ICS and should not just be a part of the command staff.

I want to also make the distinction that i'm not talking about Joint Information Centres (JICs) here but a stand alone major component of the incident management structure.

Here's some of the reasons that motivate my thinking:

  1. social networks + mobile technologies have astronomically added to the complexity of communications needs during any incident. Social convergence puts information at the forefront of any response ... practically on a par with operations ...
  2. Most incidents now involve a few, if not many, agencies ... each with their own comms channels, priorities and audiences ... each must have the resources in place to handle a multitude of info requests and provide continuous information/updates. Almost immediately, the single PIO becomes overwhelmed ... hence the need for a broader comms cell. And that's before we even start talking about the standing up of any JIC.
  3. The absolute imperative of monitoring social networks creates the need for more resources and staff devoted to the PIO function ... why not build it into the structure itself? Correcting misinformation, dispelling rumours and identifying reputational threats are among key considerations here.
  4. The PIO job is important enough to be taken away from under the umbrella of command. That would encourage the development of proper crisis communications plans  to accompany any response plan and which would include pre-approved messaging (bypassing the need for command to approve a tweet for example), the proper delegation of authority to get the communications response started and allow the incident commander to focus on coordination (although he/she would still be needed for the odd media briefing and the such ....)
  5. Finally, if you're organization is ready for this step, the comms group could be the entryway for all sorts of data pulled from the public ... crowdsourced information that can be collated, analysed and shared with plans/ops/logistics, or presented for info purposes and even put on a map.
A benefit of such a change to the IMS structure would be a faster communications response. In the age of social convergence, speed is the key (see here for some tips). We know that our audience won't wait for us ... in a way they become their own broadcasters of emergency info and their own alert network. The question for us is: how best will we complement and add to these conversations?

In incidents such as the university shooting in Oakland and today's tornadoes in Texas, Twitter becomes the principal info channel but it can be time consuming and much too much for a single PIO to handle, Who's taking care of the other comms needs?

As in the rest of the IMS, the principles of adaptability and flexibility prevail and not all sub-boxes under the EI cell would necessarily need to be filled right away. It just seems to me that a recognized, shared structure would facilitate things and make the transition into a multi-agency JIC even easier ...

In the meantime, this new PIO prototype could perhaps come to our rescue while we struggle with the new realities.

Thoughts ? 


  1. Patrice - as always, I admire your critical thinking. There are things here about which I disagree. For full disclosure, having been involved in the evolution of ICS in the early days, I tend to be parochial about it. One of the things I most appreciate about ICS is its inherent flexibility that doesn't tend to constrain creativity. The PIOs job is unquestionably more complex and multi-dimensional than it used to be, but that could be said of many ICS roles - we now have GIS specialists, for instance, and the Comm Unit Leader role (which I've filled many times) now has tremendous added complexity with digital radio systems, impending LTE possibilities, etc. The ICS structure readily allows for these positions to function fully. I continue to believe that the biggest constraint is our way of thinking. In other words, perhaps ICS doesn't need a redesign, but our way of thinking does.

    I'm uncomfortable with the thought of moving Information out from under Command. Having said that, we need Command staff to truly understand the complexities, dynamics, and multi-modal realities of Information today. That, or to have faith that the PIO *does* understand and relinquish a certain amount of control. That sounds an awful lot like the concept of trust and relationships, and that's often a challenge in reality in incident management, but it's where we need to go to succeed.

    This isn't an easy topic, and I don't pretend to have the last word on this. It bears some ongoing discussion and debate - we DO have a problem we collectively need to solve, and I vigorously applaud Patrice, Jim Garrow, and others who are contributing to the productive discussion and debate.

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words, Gary. And thanks so much for the extremely thought-provoking post, Patrice. Makes me wish I was on Twitter this past weekend to put my two cents in. Well, better late than never. =)

    I agree with Gary in this case, but for a different reason. I think that the separation between Command and General staff is made very specifically and with good reason. It is the job of everyone in Command Staff to inform the IC, and in turn inform the strategic direction of the response. While I agree that the tactical demands of the PIO have increase thousands-fold, the fact that they inform strategy explicitly separates them from the very tactical, operationally-focused General Staff. And while this separation can be labeled semantic, I believe that separation allows for those players to be focused on the correct level of view. Moving PIO to General Staff would, in my opinion, force many PIOs to focus on product development as opposed to directing the public info goals of the response.

    To expound a bit on this line of thinking, I've always thought that the reason for the incorporation of JICs, especially those with an explicit APIO/JIC Manager, is an explicit acknowledgement of the dual roles (strategic and tactical) of the PIO. No other Command Staff has such a large organization under them, and no one has a deputy that is a go-between, keeping the top-level manager from tactical operations below. The PIO focuses on strategy, and relies on the APIO/JIC Manager to operationalize that strategy (much like the IC directs the Ops Chief, and stays the hell out of the way). Separating the two (PIO and APIO) between Command and General goes against the focused nature of ICS and should be avoided, if at all possible.

    Wow, boy, when I get going... Thanks for the chance to comment on this, Patrice. I've never put all of those thoughts into one place before.


  3. Thanks so much for the kind words, Gary. And thanks so much for the extremely thought-provoking post, Patrice. Makes me wish I was on Twitter this past weekend to put my two cents in. Well, better late than never. =)

    I agree with Gary in this case, but for a different reason. I think that the separation between Command and General staff is made very specifically and with good reason. It is the job of everyone in Command Staff to inform the IC, and in turn inform the strategic direction of the response. While I agree that the tactical demands of the PIO have increase thousands-fold, the fact that they inform strategy explicitly separates them from the very tactical, operational General Staff. Moving the PIO to General Staff would, I fear, force many PIOs to focus on product development, to the detriment of strategic thinking. While this separation of strategic and tactical may seem semantic, I think that there is an underlying subtlety here that allows strategic players to focus on that helicopter-view, while allowing the General Staff to run the day-to-day, minute-to-minute response.

    Taking the idea a bit further, I think that ICS, as it's currently comprised (FEMA EA aside) makes an explicit acknowledgement of the separation of strategic- and tactical-level thinking. The incorporation of the JIC, especially those JICs with an APIO/JIC Manager, allows the PIO to focus on the strategic, while the APIO/JIC Manager is allowed to focus on the tactical. Think about it, no one else in the Command Staff has such a large organization under them (this is an acknowledgement of the tactical role of the PIO), and no one else in the entire response has a deputy whose job is to take the leader's thinking and translate that into action. Yep, the APIO/JIC Manager's job is to keep the PIO out of the JIC (ideally). This acknowledges that the PIO should not muddy his goal of strategic planning with answering the phone or playing in MS Publisher to get the header just right. The PIOs job is to set the direction of the response (with the IC) and get the hell out of the JICs way (much like the IC should set the direction of the response and get the hell out of Ops way).

    Wow, once I get going...

    Thanks for the opportunity to hash this out, Patrice. I'd never put all of those thoughts in one place before!


  4. The seperation and location within the structure is not as important as how information is managed in a fast paced environment. Rightfully based on best practices, ICS-type structures mandate command and control structures for review and approval. Unfortunately, I don't think the formalized structure can keep up with the pace necessary for social media and mobile technologies. That is the real challenge, not structural, stick diagram changes.

  5. Monsieur Cloutier, I admire greatly your bravery in even thinking of updating the venerable ICS! Thank you. My campaign to get Emergency Public Information recognized as a section began around 2001. Back in 1983, I began to teach that agencies need a PIO TEAM of at least 25-30 trained people. You can imagine the heartache that caused.

    After developing a PIO Team organization I quickly realized that most crises are predominately emergency public information crises, and that EPI is a critical function of the response. I've heard all the arguments of "why not" from the ICS purists, who forget that, when ICS was first stolen from the military in the 1950s, "the media" consisted of a very few media outlets-and no internet. The lone PIO's tools consisted of a landline telephone, a fax machine. and a pager.

    I also discovered, after working as a PIO during several major fire and non-fire incidents, that the personality and management style of the IC determined the respect and support a PIO received. ICS, org charts and checklists had little to do with it. I also realized that ICs who were PIOs at one time were a heckuva lot more supportive of EPI than those who hadn't been.

    I am a little tired of the Command/General Staff argument. As a section chief of EPI the Lead PIO interacts with the IC very much the same as one in the 'command staff position."

    By making EPI a section it merely recognized the importance of the function. It also places the function more in line with the other sections to insure better lateral communication and coordination (sorry-couldn't resist those two tired old words). But, seriously, who can walk into an information center, see 15-20 PIOs, in ICS vests, with position titels, checklists, status boards, communication equipment, span of control, lines of communication, and NOT see a section? Come on.

    And for Adam Crowe's concern, in my PIO Team organization we address the New Media challenge with two units: Media Monitoring under the Gathering and Production Group, and "New Media," under the Dissemination Group. These two units, if properly staffed, more than adequately handle this new frontier of instant information. Our emphasis in training has NOT been on structural, stick diagrams, but on PEOPLE, who understand where they fit in the organization and what they are expected to do, and to do it wherever they happened to be, not just in a fixed facility.

    If anyone would like a copy of the function chart and a list of the over 50 fire and other agency supporters of the EPIO Section Concept, (including one of the original members of Firescope!), feel free to send me an email (fcowan44@gmail.com). I will not discuss the merits of this concept anymore. I am 98% retired and tired of arguing. Besides, over a dozen agencies in several states (including California) are already using my concept and organization, some of those as a SECTION.

    One final word, if I may: this idea of a JIC came from FEMA, I believe. Well, there ya go. There has never been, or will there ever be, a true JIC. I suggest: a LIC (Local Info Center, for city crisis), a RIC (Regional, for county level), SIC (for state). The idea is that as many agencies as possible involved in the response have reps in the appropriate center. By the way, do you know how many agencies have a permanent, operation - ready information center in the US? I can count on two hands how many. The real challenge is: how many agencies have enough trained, experienced PIOs and support staff to work more than one 12 hour shift (besides some fire agencies)? Guess how many agencies have PIOs built into their mutual aid plans, or have personnel ordering units who have a list of available PIOs? Don't ask-you will get depressed.
    Good night, and thanks for reading. Again, merci beaucoup monsieur Cloutier!

  6. Intersting discussion - but I am not sure of the justification to take the PIO unit out of the command staff. On larger incidents the PIO often staffs a "media unit" and coordinates a JIC. Adding #SMEM capabiliteis to this unit is a given in todays multi-media environment. I can see the need for TechSpec for SMEM just as we are now seeing a greated demand for IT TechSpecs (which currently fall under Logs/Comms or Plans/TechSpecs) depending on the Organization.

    Are you suggesting that the PIO "team" work under COMMs in Logistics or create a seperate Section called Information Management Section Chief or that this "team" would be at the I/C Unified Command Level?

    The introduction of the Intel Officer/Unit to an IMT has been a similar challenge and has remained flexible in where it is injected into the ICS organization.

  7. From Pete Learoyd on LinkedIn, Emergency Management Canada Group

    Pete Learoyd • Some good points! Here are some further perspectives on the issues…
    First off I am referring to an EOC structure which is based on ICS (or IMS for those in ON). The placement of the IO as command/management staff next to the EOC Director/IC is key so that they have an immediate and hopefully undivided attention of this leader. I would hate to loose this direct link by placing the IO function in Ops or Plans.
    What is important to remember about ICS is that IO is a function rather than just a position. As you have alluded to, there are very few moderate or large events that could ever operate with only one IO. Since this function is often referred to by it’s title, people don’t automatically assume it can be expanded based on need just like many other elements in ICS.
    That being said… traditionally, we have always placed many elements of managing incoming information with Ops (historically, this is usually the main incoming phone line and of course all those radios). To facilitate quick action this is still very important and your points are well taken.
    The type of information that we must be responsive to have changed significantly, especially in the last number of years. Activating a specific unit to track, validate and respond to social media can be key. Keeping this unit under the authority of the IO but placing it with a direct linkage to Ops is one way to address this. This would be similar to what is often advocated with elements of the Situation Unit in Planning – placing the Planning staff who maintain the map and main display over with Ops but officially reporting to Plans. By not changing the reporting structure of these elements it helps maintain their primary role, keeps qualified support quick at hand and does not confuse span of control issues in Ops.
    We might be saying similar things, but for me the key is not loosing the “Senior” IO role that is in the command/management staff with a direct link to the EOC Director/Incident Commander.

  8. From Stafford Reid on LinkedIn (Emergency Management Canada Group)

    Stafford Reid • I advocate having incident situational information put on the web with the social media elements included such as facebook, twitter etc. Such web-based situation report is a "response tool" first, and media application second. That is, the information is put on without interpretation of performance, just the facts. It can be compiled by the Situation Unit within the Incident Command Post or delegated to an EOC. There is a place for media releases for messaging on progress and performance.

    I have a "sample template" on the web now. See: http://web.mac.com/enviroemerg/demo_sitrep/Introduction.html
    I haven't added the social media elements to this demo.

    For spills in Alaska, the lead agencies and the Responsible Party even put their incident action plans on the web and ensure that under Unified Command there is only "one evaluation: one message". Check out the M/V Selendang Ayu incident at: http://www.dec.alaska.gov/spar/perp/response/sum_fy05/041207201/041207201_index.htm When the M/V New Carissa freighter that ran aground on a beach near Coos Bay, Oregon in February 1999, there were millions of web hits. Even if 1% of these hits where enquiries to the Incident Command Post, the Public Information Officer would be overwhelmed.

    The files for the above demo website are available on request. Free to use and modify.