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

4 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.


  2. Social Media is a reality today. I remember listing to a presentation on Operationalizing Social Media at a CITIG Conference, delivered by a Police Dispatcher from Calgary Police over 10 yrs ago before Social Media was really Social Media. She stated that if your Public Safety agency isn’t paying attention to Social Media (SM), and I paraphrase, “your aren’t doing your job”. That was before Twitter, Instagram, FaceBook was something else, but Calgary Police at that time understood what impact SM was going to have on incident response, management and even public image. SM can impact on public opinion during a response by an IMT or how an ECC/EOC is managing the emergency, IMTs and EOCs are now actively using SM as a conduit for crowd sourcing information, it can be used for public messaging and getting the word out or righting fake news among other things, but where do we fit all these opportunities to engage SM during incident response for an IMT?

    Operations? – Unless one of your incident objectives are to specifically deal with “SM”, then a “SM Unit or a SM presence” within Operations is not the location for SM. Operations deals directly with the incident problems and is tasked to meet incident objectives. Can the OSC benefit using SM, yes, but it’s not for to him to setup a branch/division-group/unit in Ops to operationalize SM unless SM is a significant objective within the incident response.

    Information Officer? – The IO (or PIO in some jurisdictions) will use SM many ways. As a way gauge the “temperature” of the response. What is the feel out on the “twittersphere” on how our team is performing, are we winning their confidence, does there seem to be a lot of miscommunications, rumors, false information. The IO/PIO will use this as a measure on how well the team is performing – what are they saying about us, if people are getting the right information, and strategically will leverage using SM to truth misinformation – not to get into back an forth exchanges but correction on errors such as time, location, measurements. They will want to truth the facts that could imped ongoing incident operations. That is if the Joint Information Centre and/or the delegation of authority permits the use of SM to send information out to the public by the IMT. (That is another part of the conversation)

    Planning Section? – The monitoring of Social Media not only is an activity within the function of the IO/PIO, but is a critical conduit for collecting information that can be consumed by the incident. And before information can be used and considered for incident use, it must be verified and validated and then it becomes “intelligence” that now can be used in the planning process. The Situation Unit is the place that collects and validates information. The SM information that the Situation will collect should be only for incident consideration. The Situation Unit does not tweet or post to SM… they are mining SM for the tidbits of info that could be useful, the pictures, reports, measurements, observations, etc. They can also flag SM content appropriate for other eyes within the IMT. SM has the ability to produce a paralyzing amount of “now” information, that it can overload a Situation Unit Leader so if the incident is a particularly hot SM event, they could assign a SM Manager to just do nothing but troll the inter-web. The Situation Unit intelligence can also be shared with anyone who needs it within the Command and General Staff and especially by the IO/PIO. Could it be a Unit within Planning that is external? I would think the Principles of ICS would support that but I would consider this only if it was part of the IMT’s delegation to generate and post social media content for what ever reason. The collection of SM still needs to be turned into intelligence by the Situation Unit and handed over to the SM Unit for consumption for the purpose of preparation and documentation of SM products for use by Operations. Remember everything Planning is doing is to support Operations. On a side not, SM is not of value or a tool for the Resources Unit because the Resources Unit does not task incident resources. It tracks incident resources tasked by Operations.

    ECC/EOC? – Emergency Coordination Centres can parallel SM management using the same considerations made within an IMT. That is if they employ an ICS-Like structure to run their centre. But it is up to the Centre responsible for the incident to determine who does what with SM, especially posting to SM. And if the response is a multi agency response employing Unified Command, with the potential of several ECC/EOCs becoming engaged, all with jurisdictional responsibility for the response, then the Agency Administrators will decide as a group how SM will be managed and activating a Joint Information Centre will push mountains for all involved while supporting information management, media and social media for a large complex incident response and support.

    Regardless of where the responsibility of tracking, monitoring, posting, and management of social media lies, it needs to be coordinated so that it delivers consistent messaging. Everyone engaged in the operations and support of the incident response need to be reading from the same script and using the same playbook. Joint Information Centres (JIC) with IO/PIO representation from the responsible agencies from the IMT, impacted agencies, responsible agencies and supporting agencies are all in the same room sharing the same information and flowing the same messaging to their respective organizations, CEOs, Ministers, Mayor/Councils and to the media. JICs will do the heavy lifting in managing public information, crisis communications, town hall meetings, allowing the IMT to focus on the response, and ECC/EOC to focus on incident support, Emergency Social Services, public safety, planning for recovery/reentry, and answering to the needs of their chain of command above them

    SM for IMTs is a tool used for gathering and sharing of information and intelligence internally . SM for the JIC is a tool they use for gathering and sharing of information and intelligence for their respective agencies and to produce products and perform activities to support ECC/EOC operations so that everyone has the same briefing note to brief from. Ensuring SM and Crisis Communications is providing important, consistent messaging for public safety, the IC, the Centre Director and the Minister/Mayor/CAO or CEO.

    If an IC or Centre Director does not have someone designated with eyes on SM today, they have failed or missed an opportunity to support and/or provide the right tools for their respective teams. SM is not the definitive solution to managing a response but it can help you stay ahead of the 8-ball and not get caught flat footed and caught falling behind playing a constant game of catchup. The public sees that weakness and public confidence can be quickly lost and it may take a long time to regain that credibility. Information is power, it can be turned into intelligence to support timely, important critical decisions and messaging that can save lives, minimize losses and speed up recovery and return to a normal life. Whether we like it or not, its is a critical part of what we do today.


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