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. 

Image source: https://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/rsrcs/pblctns/ntrprblt-strtg/index-en.aspx

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?

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?

Image via Unsplash.com

What Wildfire Evacuees Need. Right Now.

Currently in California and Oregon, mass evacuations are underway as a result of three of the nine largest wildfires in that state’s history.

As an emergency responder on the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) Wildfire, (commonly known as the Fort McMurray Fires), I had a front-row seat to the largest evacuation in Alberta’s history, with upwards of 90,000 people displaced from their homes and 3,244 structures destroyed. Economic costs as a result of the fires were among the highest in Canadian history to date, with insured property damage estimated at $3.58 billion.

A common feature of disaster season over the past number of years has been the devastating impact of wildfires, and severe economic and environmental consequences as a result. According to Natural Resources Canada, climate change and climate variability have altered patterns of lightning, temperature, precipitation and vegetation. These altered conditions have increased the potential for fire, with some estimates suggesting a doubling of the area burned by the end of the century.

According to some reports, communication gaps contributed to mixed messages to residents regarding the need to evacuate, while others have highlighted how the rapid escalation of the fire overwhelmed the ability to respond. In order to continue to develop best response practises, it is worth considering the unique requirements of evacuees, including the method, breadth and timeliness of information dissemination.

Issues surrounding internal EOC communications, including field interoperability and technology will be covered in a future post.

Information requirements for wildfire evacuees was studied in an article by S.M. McCaffrey et. al. in the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters published in 2013. The recommendations outlined in this report reference the residents affected by wildfires in Arizona and Colorado in 2010, but have obvious applicability to future events of this type.

As expected, the authors of the study found that those most impacted by a wildfire event would have the greatest need for information, particularly regarding evacuation, road closures, protection of property and disaster recovery. Previously evacuated survey respondents reflected a common concern that critical information was not provided by authorities in a timely manner. In practise, this lack of timely information provides fertile ground for misinformation to spread, particularly on social media. 

Evacuees have access to multiple information sources. The study’s findings show that evacuees gravitate away from static sources (i.e. radio) towards those that incorporate two-way communication, as in social media. The increased functionality of social media allows evacuees to seek and source locally specific information that may not be available in traditional formats. 

As emergency management professionals, how can we ensure that evacuees have access to information in as timely a manner as possible? The review of literature and anecdotal evidence highlights important trends and lessons that may be applied to future hazards: 

  • Early establishment of credibility. It is important that updates and information be vetted and distributed through the PIO, reporting to the Incident Commander. A ‘bias for candor’, established early in the crisis will go a significant way towards establishment of trust and compliance with subsequent orders.
  • Criticality of consistent, centralized communication. While disruptions, distress and tension cannot be ameliorated completely, it is critical to ensure a coordinated approach to messaging. Establishing early credibility and transparency, from a source deemed credible, goes a long way towards reducing the risk of the disaster becoming ‘weaponized’ by those seeking to spread mis/disinformation.
  • Telling the truth. Most people can handle the truth, it is the obfuscation and withholding of information that does a great deal of damage. Understandably, Command Staff are reluctant to release information that may cause further distress to those affected. Paradoxically, this ‘bias for candor’ but may reduce the risk associated with those who would seek to assess property damage on their own.
  • Demonstrating empathy. In a response scenario where “all hell is breaking loose”, it is sometimes hard to remember the people we are serving, in many cases, are having the worst day of their lives. As the saying goes, “ Before people will listen to you, they need to know you care about them.” To this end, employing social media monitors, to engage in a two-way dialogue with affected individuals offering psychosocial supports is a critical element of the response.

In a disaster scenario, emergency responders are wise to invest in resources and initiatives that may assist impacted individuals with factual, empathic and transparent communications.

I look forward to hearing your input. Any feedback or questions can be directed to me at @AlisonPoste on Twitter, or to AlisonPoste@gmail.com.