Sunday, October 28, 2012

Too much info during incidents: time for a new command position?

As Hurricane Sandy (#sandy or #frankenstorm on Twitter) approaches the East Coast, we are once again witnesses to a great volume of information and warnings put out by a whole slew of sources. Governments (federal, state, municipal), the media, volunteer technical communities (VTCs). Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs), the private sector, bloggers and ordinary citizens.

Even though we are still just anticipating the storm, some serious efforts are being deployed, particularly in crisis mapping: Tweak the Tweet, ESRI, Google Crisis Response and others, are using this tool to gather info. Anyone can see how easy info overload can happen.

Now, go forward in time, let's say 24 hours, and all those channels, at the local, state and even federal level, are totally jammed with requests for assistance, witness accounts of the evolving situation, and comments on how the response is being handled. It all becomes a big noise ...

Information should be the most valuable commodity for an incident commander or an EOC director. If we adopt the view of "whole of community" approach to preparedness and resilience. we should also aim for "community-based situational awareness" or a fully comprehensive user-defined operating picture.That means integrating intelligence from social listening activities.

That's where the value of SMEM (social media in emergency management) really comes to the fore. The social convergence (mobile tech + social networks) results, on one hand, in empowered volunteers (organized or spontaneous), and in greater scrutiny and even criticism, on the other hand.

All this results in a veritable flood of information that could have an impact on any incident response, from ops to the PIO function. So, I'm thinking the time has come to modify the ICS/NIMS structure and add a formal intelligence officer position as part of the command staff. I've talked before about the need to make a similar change in terms of providing emergency information. 

I know making change to the doctrine is not a popular topic but times change, how people consume and produce information has changed as well. I also know that span of control issues could arise by adding another command position (if you add the general staff and command staff chiefs/positions ...).

But the environment of any incident has changed because of social networks. Information is available in real-time and should be added to the decision making process. Now, I'm not talking about an Intel Officer position in the sense of criminal intel (for my law enforcement friends who might be troubled by access to this kind of info) or in the normal military sense. This concept of an incident intelligence officer is more in the contextual analysis and environment that surrounds every disaster or crisis.

It's more akin to an information manager role, controller of all the data that's available to command. The photographer/developer who puts all the available operating pictures into a useful mosaic of ops pictures ... to come up with a "global view" of the incident.

I see the benefits as follows:

  1. better, more comprehensive, community-based situational awareness for command
  2. supports better decisions by giving more info for the allocation of strategic resources in tough fiscal environments
  3. makes reporting up to higher echelons (political or otherwise) easier with a more "constituency-oriented" picture of what the incidents means ...
I'm sure this will get a lot of comments ....looking forward to them! 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Big exercise = big lessons learned in SMEM

I had the opportunity this week to take part (mostly as observer/coach) in a big emergency management exercise. Trillium Resolve had more than 1,000 participants from 50+ organizations in a vast part of southwestern Ontario.

The scenario was based on a series of severe weather events impacting municipalities in four different counties and the largest nuclear power station in the world (with 8 reactors ...).

A scenario this ambitious proved to be too enticing for not trying to add on a social media component. As part of the design team, I promoted early on, a "closed loop" approach. This was done mainly to ensure that no exercise tweet or Facebook post would cause concerns.

The way I thought we could do this without overburdening the exercise players, was to simulate the "output" of a social media listening operation. Based on the "tweak the tweet" syntax, I developed a series of report such as this one. Whenever possible or relevant, I added geo-location data and pictures or videos to add to the realism. 

The original intent was to have the reports send via email to different EOCs and PIOs playing. What actually happened was that the exercise controllers, broke down the reports and included individual simulated posts/tweets on a fake news web site that had been created for the exercise. So it ended up that players, especially PIOs/comms people, actually had to monitor social media and web/media stories in real time. 

Now, if we had had the time and resources, we could have used a tool such as Simulation Deck which is rapidly growing popular among the military, academic and corporate sectors, as a tool to test social media monitoring capabilities.

By trying to inject some contemporary reality into the exercise play, we were trying to do four things in relations to monitoring social networks:

  1. develop our ability to keep up with the volume of data we needed to keep an eye on (social and traditional media)
  2. increase our ability to identify social network injects which posed reputational threats or we calls for info or help
  3. determine what data could be analysed and transformed into solid intel for decision-making purposes and putting in place the channels to flow that info
  4. finally, validate the process for engagement/responses
Since I wasn't playing, I wanted to test my own skills ... so I started a crowdmap of not only the play injects but also the real-life media stories and posts about the exercise ... It was hard to keep up. I've written before that social media monitoring can be quite challenging and requires a team effort.

So, in closing, some key lessons I learned (or learned again !) during the week. To be effective, a social media listening/monitoring program needs the right resources ... it's a big job! You need (in my estimation):
  • to do the basic listening and searches, 
  • to tag/analyse/collate/curate the info and make it into actionable intel or tasks 
  • to conduct the engagement piece and respond to calls for help, request for info or dispel rumours.
It's more than one person could do ... or even three. Also, another key piece is to put in place, ahead of time, the channels through which the output of your social listening program will flow.

And very importantly, find a "champion" in your organization's leadership, who believes in the validity of the info that results and acts upon it ... proving that social media monitoring is now an essential part of any response to a disaster or crisis.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Crisis communications readiness: a necessity

I often say that every organization should have a thorough crisis communications plan and that every response plan should have a crisis comms component. Furthermore, every employee should receive some sort of media relations/public outreach awareness training because they can all become the "face" of the organization during a crisis.

in addition, social convergence (mobile tech + social networks) means that someone is always watching you ... or at least has the mean to tape (videotape too) what you're doing ... catch their actions for posterity.

There is no way to avoid crises ... people make mistakes, have lapses of judgment ... and they get caught on tape or called out online.
Nothing goes unseen today ...well not much ... the most fleeting, embarrassing moment can come back to haunt you. This briefest of movement of one finger, caused a fire chief to publicly apologize. 

Now, when you do something dumb in a deliberate manner, in front of cameras ... then you're asking for trouble:
Okay ... that's once right ? People learn from their mistakes ... don't do something stupid like that again ? ... Well, it would seem not in every case ... read this account of a second troubling incident involving the now infamous "badge 728.

You know you're really in trouble when your boss has to apologize on your behalf and behalf of the whole organization:

Online mistakes can equally be as painful: 

That particular tweet prompted this apology:

We've deleted an unauthorized tweet made from this Twitter handle. We apologize to all of our followers for the inappropriate language used.

A fantastic top 20 list of online/social media mistakes can be found here.

A few of lessons here:

  • dust off your crisis comms plan and exercise regularly
  • train your people and then train them again 
  • bring awareness of the social convergence and the challenges it brings to anyone who interacts with the public
Your people are human ... they will make mistakes ... the best way to counter them is to adopt a human approach. 

It worked well for the American Red Cross.
Some other good examples of how to handle mistakes or crisis on social media. We're in a brand new connected world ...we're all watching ...waiting for the next person to falter publicly ... 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's time for emergency managers to catch up with society!

The Canadian Red Cross did all of us who believe in the growing importance of social media in emergency management (SMEM) a great favour. They commissioned a poll whose results indicate that Canadians expect us to use the tools they use every day during disasters.

The following infographic tells the story:

  • 64 per cent of Canadians use social media sites, 62 per cent of whom participate nearly every day
  • 63 per cent think disaster and emergency response agencies, including fire and police, should be prepared to respond to calls for help that are posted on social media networks
  • About one third of respondents (35 per cent) think emergency services would respond to a request for help posted on social media, 74 per cent of whom believe help would arrive within one hour
  • 54 per cent of Canadians say they would use social media to let loved ones know they are safe in an emergency
  • Although television (39 per cent) and radio (26 per cent) are the preferred ways of receiving news about an emergency, one third (31 per cent) of Canadians say they would prefer various electronic methods, such as web sites, social media or cell phones
  • While the majority of Canadians say they have personally experienced disasters, 66 per cent have not taken steps to prepare themselves for an emergency
  • The main reasons cited for not taking steps to prepare include: perception that a disaster is unlikely to occur in their area (27 per cent); never thought about it (21 per cent); and no time/never got around to it (12 per cent)

The interesting is to marry these results with these ones on mobile usage:

This social convergence (mobile tech + social networks) is the basis for a new era in emergency management and while there are many enthusiastic practitioners of SMEM in Canada, there is a great deal of room for acceptance by EM officials.

During my stay in Halifax last week, for the Canadian Red Cross Conference on Disaster Management, I heard lots of enthusiastic comments but those were not generally associated with ongoing SMEM practices.

Many recognize the value of social networks as emergency information tools ... as a one-way for EM agencies to communicate with their audiences during a disaster, few yet fully realize the great "force-multiplying" effect of the use of social media by citizens during disasters.

Simply put, they ignore the valuable data that people put out voluntarily to share their experiences in their neighbourhoods, streets and communities during incidents. All data, that can be monitored on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Reddit for example, and then analyze to provide actionable intelligence to support effective decision-making by command.

My argument to spur on adoption of full spectrum SMEM practices: there is no greater commodity for an EOC manager or incident commander than information or intelligence. Social media monitoring brings tons of such intel ... actionable information that can lead to better decisions and a more efficient use of strategic resources during a response ... that's a key point in a fiscal environment where resources are becoming scarcer. 

In the end, emergency managers won't have a choice ... they'll either make full use of the tools that the people they serve use everyday ... or they run the risk of being irrelevant or lack the full array of intelligence that leads to better responses.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Building community resilience and social networks

I had the great privilege to be invited to present at the Canadian Red Cross Conference on Disaster Manager in Halifax earlier this week. The theme of the conference was "community resilience" and I was asked to talk about the use of social media in emergency management (SMEM).

We heard from Laurie Pearce of Royal Roads University on the need to build resilience from the bottom up, based on the capabilities and strengths of communities. Karina Pillay-Kinnee, the Mayor of Slave Lake in Alberta, told the immensely powerful story of how her town was nearly destroyed by a wildfire and how community resiliency provided the backbone of its ongoing recovery.

Also very illuminating was a first-hand account of the Japan Triple Disaster from  Naoki Kokawa of the Japanese Red Cross.

I tried to orient my talk on the notion of social media as a key element in all components/pillars of emergency management and the EOC. In my mind, this certainly goes way beyond using SM as communications tools although they are very powerful instruments in connecting with audiences during a disaster. Information is aid ... social networks play a great role in delivering it.

I believe that the true power of SMEM resides in the increase of information and data available to decision-makers. It allows them to deploy resources is a much more strategic manner because their situational awareness can be in real-time, down to the hyper-local level with the use of the right technologies. We all have to gain by a full integration of SM into EM.

I cannot think of a better way to increase our collective resilience.