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 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 http://www.icscanada.ca. 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.

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