Communication Interoperability During Response

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of an EOC can tell you that communications are likely to fail at some point during an emergency response. Whether communications infrastructure is damaged as a result of the event itself, or a crisis erupts on social media, the adaptability of the ICS structure is more than capable to respond. 

According to a 2017 dissertation published by James E. Burroughs of Walden University, there are a number of common factors that lead to the failure of communications in emergency environments. In conducting his study, Burroughs surveyed a number of first responders. Despite their geographic distribution, the respondents shared similar concerns.

Concerns surrounding interoperability of communications technologies have been well documented in AAR reporting, however the lessons remain ‘documented’ only – not learned. Participants in Burroughs’ study outlined policy barriers, the lack of inter-agency training and budgetary constraints as the most significant impediments to full interoperability during emergency response. 

In 2011, Public Safety Canada completed the Communications Interoperability Strategy for Canada (CISC). The Senior Officials Responsible for Emergency Management (SOREM) group, with representation from every province and territory, was responsible for overseeing development and implementation of the CISC, but participation by each jurisdiction remained voluntary. 

The Interoperability Continuum published in the CISC outlined five elements required for an effective strategy that encompass the recommendations made by Burroughs. 

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We know how to fix the problem of subpar interoperability. So – what are the barriers to implementation of technologies that have been demonstrated to save lives and enhance mutual aid? 

The cynical part of me thinks it comes down to a simple political calculus; another part of me thinks its the inevitable result of a field that hasn’t (yet) had the ‘ear’ of officials charged with implementing comprehensive solutions informed by those with real-world experience. What do you think?

What is the Role of EM During Civil Disturbance

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

In a prior post, I spoke about the impacts of simultaneous disasters of the “comorbidities” of a global pandemic and natural disaster, and how these disasters highlight the inequities already present in society. For an exceptional book that explores the history of inequity, I cannot recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents highly enough.

As we have seen over recent months and days, civil disturbances have arisen with greater frequency. The causes of this unrest are beyond the scope of this blog. 

I thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the AARs conducted by the Seattle Police Department following the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference (1999) and the Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia. While these events occurred nearly 20 years apart, they contain comparable elements and origins. Because the SPD authored the AAR and may be perceived to be biased, I have also referenced independent studies of the protest. 

Common recommendations in these reports include expanding situational awareness, and operational control capabilities.  

Situational Awareness

In Seattle, the assumptions guiding the SPD were based on the planning that occurred during a similar global conference that took place 6 years prior. The report indicates the SPD were “surprised by the high degree of coordinated action orchestrated, using walkie-talkies and cell phones.” Countering the “official” SPD narrative in a 2004 paper presented to the Global Studies Association, Joseph Young pointed to the mobilization that had been planned for over a year on the internet. 

In the case of the Charlottesville protest event, Captain Shifflett recalled being “surprised at the planning … [who] used walkie talkies to share information …” Sound familiar? As the independent review noted, the FBI and other agencies provided regular oral and written intelligence to police and emergency planners that the event would be well-attended and potentially violent. The report concludes “[the emergency planners] could not have been reasonably surprised by what occurred.” 

Others have commented on the ‘failure of imagination’ that has contributed to the lack of situational awareness for similar events. The Situation Unit of the ICS Framework is tasked with collecting, synthesizing and developing projections of future events related to the incident. As I discussed in a prior post, incorporating a social media element into the ICS framework could assist in gathering the intelligence needed to anticipate potential threats. 

Despite the almost 20-year gap between the Seattle and Charlottesville events, this lesson in planning remains ‘unlearned.’

Operational Control

In Charlottesville, the independent review emphasized that the lack of a unified command structure contributed to the escalation of the threat. In the Charlottesville protest, agencies were not well integrated and did not have any communication prior to the event. Indeed, the various agencies present each operated on separate communications channels. Some officers noted that they were uncomfortable issuing orders to those outside their agencies, further undercutting operational cohesion and effectiveness. 

According to the SPD report, numerous policing agencies throughout the Pacific NorthWest completed a “comprehensive training agenda” prior to the conference, including 24 hours of ICS training. As the report states, during the event, the Incident Commander at the Seattle Police Operations Center (SPOC) had limited ‘ground’ intelligence, and was constrained by a span of control too large to manage effectively. The lack of compatible communications infrastructure between the responding agencies, was also identified as a major issue that hampered the effectiveness of the response. 

The ICS unified command model stresses collaboration between senior persons from agencies that cross jurisdictions to develop a common set of objectives and strategies in a single Incident Action Plan. This is well known to ICS practitioners, yet the issues remain. As my colleague Tim Riecker covers in his blog, despite so much effort invested in ICS training, organizations often intentionally disregard much of what has been taught. 

When the AARs are published for the events that took place in Washington on January 6th, will the same “lessons learned” be documented? In that case they are not “lessons learned” at all — but they are learnABLE. 

How can we do a better job of integrating ICS into our organizations?

In the ICS Classroom … a Guest Post by Tom Cox (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.


Along with the tried-and-true strategies of vaccines, masks, disinfectants, border closings, limiting gatherings, quarantines, and thoughts-and-prayers, we have the following added dimensions that reduce the effectiveness of each strategy.    All of these occurred in the last two days:

  • Politicians travelling when telling citizen to avoid non-essential travel.
  • Pharmacist deliberately destroys 500 vials of the vaccine.
  • Citizens deliberately sneaking past border closures to get in or out.
  • Businesses and churches refusing to follow group size restrictions.
  • Students and tourists holding parties while ignoring group size restrictions.
  • Nurses and doctors refusing to take the vaccine because they do not feel it is safe.
  • People paying to get ahead of others in order to get the vaccine.
  • Making elderly patients line up outside for up to nine hours to get the vaccine
  • Keeping New Years celebrations (and Christmas activities the week before) open because people will ignore any restrictions anyways.   
  • Keeping big-box stores open but closing most small local businesses.   
  • Businesses refusing to enforce mask or group-size guidelines.
  • People deliberately breaking quarantine, including ones who know they are infectious. 
  • Police refusing to enforce health restrictions and health officials who have no training. 
  • Security guards at quarantine facilities that have no authority or training to stop anyone leaving.
  • The virus is mutating and measures such as vaccines may be ineffective or less effective.
  • We still don’t know how it is transmitted and how far we should stay apart.   
  • We don’t understand “high risk” doesn’t explain high risk of catching it, high risk of spreading it, or high risk of dying from it and each of them is a different issue requiring different strategies.   


The key understanding is that strategies are great when they are 100% effective.   The Covid-19 response shows that selecting the best strategy is impossible when you don’t know the exact danger, the amount of spread, no mitigation is 100% and some may be as little as 5% effective (wiping surfaces), people ignore recommendations, enforcement is not possible, leaders aren’t leading and the virus is changing before we even understand what strategy worked best on the old version.

We have literally had 12 months of discussion on a world-wide basis by every elected politician and health expert of what strategy or strategies work best.    From herd immunity to “it will simply disappear”, the overwhelmed hospitals, exhausted health staff, and nursing home death rates demonstrate that selecting the most effective strategy is not as simple as it seems.   There are trade-offs (economy versus health), unknowns, changes, and people deliberately trying to reduce the effectiveness of the best of a variety of strategies of varying degrees of effectiveness.

Which strategy(s) would you recommend knowing that people will deliberately ignore your recommendation?  Now … let’s have that ICS Planning P Strategy Meeting!   

In the ICS Classroom … a Guest Post by Tom Cox (PART 1)

Over the next couple weeks, I am thrilled to present a piece written by my friend and colleague Tom Cox. I have had the good fortune to have “Tox” as an instructor for the majority of my ICS and ‘hands on’ education during multiple EOC activations. To receive next week’s post in your inbox, subscribe here.

Tom Cox is the Senior ICS Consultant with the Alberta Emergency Management Agency and an instructor trainer with ICS Canada.   He has written a number of papers on teaching ICS, available at Tom specializes in instructor training and professional development as well as speaking on a variety of emergency topics at conferences across North America.    


When teaching Incident Command, one of the key steps is to choose which strategy or strategies will be used to achieve your Objectives.  As an Instructor, I have used everything from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (and the potential to detonate a nuclear weapon as a strategy) to the Thai cave rescue and wildfire strategies to plain language examples like my dog Austin wanting an extra bowl of dog food or emptying all water out of a bathtub if the plug cannot be pulled.    But in every case, there has been one unspoken assumption:

The strategy should be effective.

The COVID-19 pandemic offers a different understanding on the choice of strategies when getting away from the classroom and dealing with actual incidents.    

Looking at a house fire, putting water on the fire is a sure-bet way of putting out the fire. But what if the strategy was not 100% effective?  What if the fire department arrived on scene and told the homeowner “We’re going to try something that is usually 75% effective and it should generally work most of the time…”?     


The Strategy Meeting during the Planning P is rarely given anything more than a cursory overview.  The discussion is a brief overview of “this always works.”   In fact, in the FEMA Planning P Video, the AHIMTA spends exactly 49 seconds on strategies … and there is no presentation of alternatives. Most of the meeting is centred on information sharing and meeting schedules. Vacuum trucks will work, we will have a limited evacuation and if we need to, let it burn. Done!  

While the FEMA Planning P video is meant to give an overview, it provides a dangerous example with a number of hidden assumptions:

  • We know what the problem is.
  • We know the best strategy to use and, therefore, do not need any alternative strategies
  • The strategies are near 100% effective
  • People will not deliberately try it make the strategy ineffective.   

You always want to have effective strategies when dealing with an Incident.     Ineffective strategies add a whole new dimension to the Strategy meeting.   


The Covid-19 response around the world is using a myriad of methods to try to contain and control the spread of the Coronavirus.    None of them have proven to be 100% effective, some are known to be less effective, some are believed to be ineffective and virtually every government in the world is throwing as much spaghetti at the wall to see what will stick.   Here are some examples:

  • We don’t know exactly how it is spreading.    Wiping surfaces with alcohol has been a huge effort, but if the virus is spread 99% by air, then is all the wiping worth the effort?
  • We know masks work, but there are different types of masks and some are less effective than others.    If you can’t obtain N95 masks and have them fit tested for everyone, is a mask that is 60% effective going to stop the spread?
  • Vaccines may have 70% to 95% effectiveness.    With a virus that is extremely transmissible, is even 95% going to be enough?     Will 70-75% be enough to slow it down?   What about logistics of a 95% effective vaccine that takes extreme cold to store and ship versus the 70-75% effective vaccine that can be held in a household freezer?   
  • We quarantine people for 14 days but that has proven to be a tremendous burden for those stuck in small apartments, small hotel rooms, or without access to medications, food or other essentials.   If we reduce it to ten days, people are more likely to stay in quarantine, but it will be less effective.   
  • We know kids spread the disease, but keeping kids at home is a huge burden on both the kids and the parents.    The children are generally not severely impacted (with exceptions) but if we send them to school, we solve one problem, but increase the risk of spread.    
  • We close internal borders (Canadian provinces/territories and Australian state to state travel) and external borders (international flight bans) but those are often instituted after the virus has already spread, such as the British/South African variants.    Closing the barn door after the horse has left appears ineffective, but we never discuss how many horses are potentially still within the barn.
  • We reduce gathers from 500 to 100 to 25 to 10 to 5 to 1 and yet the virus is still spreading.   We know we can’t isolate families from each other, we would find it difficult to shut essential businesses to prevent any human transmission, and we don’t know what the number is to stop the spread when one business or one gathering is resulting in 20 to 100 new infections.

What strategy would you recommend? How can we incorporate more strategy into the ICS Planning process?

Watch the blog next week where Tom discusses the consequences of less than 100% effective strategies in depth. Subscribe here to receive the copy in your inbox.