Is there a place for Social Media in the ICS Structure?

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As a member of the emergency management response team for the Province of Alberta in 2016, I had the opportunity to witness provincial disasters as a member of the Operations Team. I was struck by the impacts of social media during the most acute operational periods of this crisis, particularly the prevalence of ‘disinformation’ impacting those most impacted by the disaster. 

One of the central features of ICS is the importance of integrated communications. The use of technology during emergencies and disasters has emerged as an important conduit for governments and other agencies to reach individuals and communities, and to deploy assistance where needed. 

In a Master’s Thesis authored by B.A. Scholl in May 2014, he made the case for the inclusion of the Social Media Unit (SMU) into the ICS structure. He considers a wide variety of social media types, defining the term broadly as any media that allows the public to interact with each other and share information. These can include discussion fora (Reddit), photo/video sharing sites (Instagram, YouTube), social networking sites (Facebook, LinkedIn) and micro-blogs (Twitter, Tumblr). 

In examining the growth of social media during disasters, Scholl examines social media usage during five disasters, including the 2007 California wildfires, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2011 Japan earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Hurricane Sandy (2012). The specific ICS frameworks associated with each of these will be examined in future posts.  

Scholl makes an argument about where in the ICS Structure the SMU should be placed to maximize its value: he considers integrating it into the Public Information Officer (PIO) function, the Operations Section or the Planning Section. 

SMU within the PIO function

As Scholl discusses, placing the SMU within the PIO function may make the most intuitive sense, as the PIO is generally regarded as the media relations expert within the ICS structure. The data management issues, particularly for larger incidents may be more than what a single resource can manage. By placing the SMU into the Planning or the Operations Section, chain of command issues can be minimized, allowing the PIO to focus traditionally on traditional media. 

SMU within the Operations Section

Because the Operations Section is concerned with tactics, as the incident expands Divisions (geographic areas of operation) and Groups (functional areas of operation) are added to manage the span of control issues. If the span of control is exceeded with Divisions and Groups, Branches are added. Scholl argues the unique hierarchical structure of the Operations Section is the biggest deterrent to including a SMU, resulting from the pressures of information flow that ultimately may never make it to the Planning Section.  

Because the Planning Section is responsible for the overall Incident Action Plan (IAP), this is the section most favoured to house the SMU. 

SMU within the Planning Section

Responsible for the Resources, Situation, Documentation and Demobilization Units, the Planning Section. As Scholl argues in his thesis, the Situation Unit is the natural ‘home’ for a SMU, as they can “keep abreast of this information, display it for those needing it, and track using maps where users are located and where help is needed.” (Scholl, 2014). Leveraging this information, the Resources Unit can task resources to the Operations Section for tactical operations. Using the entire Planning Section in this way can help to shape the IAP and shape the goals of future operational periods as needed. Because there are no Groups, Divisions or Branches in the Planning Unit, issues associated with the chain of command may be minimized, as each Unit Leader reports directly to the Planning Chief. 

Regardless of whether a dedicated SMU becomes a formalized part of the ICS, its impact cannot be dismissed. 

What do you think — what do you think the role of social media is in the ICS?

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Author: Alison Poste

3 thoughts on “Is there a place for Social Media in the ICS Structure?”

  1. I’ve been pondering this since 2008 when I was involved with a wildfire in Nova Scotia where social media (especially Facebook groups) led to great amounts of misinformation spreading during and after the disaster, with no presence by the responding agencies on social media at the time. I again saw this pattern observing the Slave Lake wildfire and when I was part of the High River flood response, where there was a disconnect between responder posts and what residents were experiencing or reading. Then, in 2017 I was part of the team for the Cariboo-Chilcotin wildfires which ravaged British Columbia’s interior, where I had data, tools, trends and patterns during and after the incident to study.

    In professional communications, social media is part of tactics we use to achieve strategies. As such, we manage full-circle from strategy to measurement. With this in mind, the natural fit is under information, however, that role must evolve from the traditional media-centric role to a digital one. This is what we did in the Cariboo wildfires as the traditional role was not working for residents after the first few weeks of the 77-day incident.

    I think social media needs to be expanded under information, and a unit created to find and compile data which would fit beautifully in planning. This can include mapping user-generated photos, picking up on trends which identify areas of concern, or patterns in weather, river flows or disease. Frankly, the data is there and the story it tells is unknown and would be extremely helpful to all sections, and it is a gigantic missing piece in a modern emergency response.


    1. Hi Tim, and thanks so much for your comment. I think we must have crossed paths at the Alberta EOC during one of the many disasters to hit Alberta over the last number of years. I joined AEMA immediately following the Southern Alberta floods.

      I agree with you that social media has an important role to play in modern emergency response. The examples you cite are excellent – misinformation flourishes in the absence of a well coordinated and integrated communications framework. The data IS there — and we do our stakeholders a disservice by not utilizing the wide variety of tools at our disposal.


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