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?