A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for "Information Communications Standstill"?

I’ve know Bellingham Fire Chief Bill Boyd for almost ten years–ever since we worked together on the Olympic Pipeline explosion, the event that got me into this crisis communication business. Since then I’ve not only come to respect him for his leadership skills and Incident Command capabilities, but for his deep and personal experience with managing information in this instant news/social media world. Bill was a Public Information Officer before he became chief, but more than that as Chief he has set some high standards for effective public information management including during the H1N1 crisis and the massive floods last year in the Pacific Northwest.

I asked Bill to speak Incident Commander to Incident Commander about the realities of today’s information environment. I hope advice, earned through hard experience, will be passed on to every Incident Commander, executive, fire chief, police chief and anyone else who will make decisions during a major event. (By the way, for those not familiar with ICS, it stands for Incident Command System, otherwise now known as NIMS or National Incident Management System. It requires Command approval of all information before release and consequently can substantially slow information distribution without taking Bill’s advice.)
Chief Bill Boyd:

Does ICS stand for “Information Communications Standstill”?

As I am typing this my Twitter monitoring site is logging messages by the second about the huge earthquake off the coast of Chile.  I am looking at pictures and comments from earthquake survivors, their relatives and others monitoring this disaster within seconds of being posted.  The speed and amount of information being disseminated right now is staggering, and I am contributing to this situation by relaying pertinent information to my followers through Facebook, Twitter and PIER Systems (which also posts immediately to my city’s internet news web site).

This unfolding and widespread crisis highlights the importance of strategic agility, speed and accuracy in disseminating information during a high visibility emergency event.  As a Fire Chief and Incident Commander for a regional incident management team, I recognize the need to immediately implement and use all available information tools and resources to push accurate information out to the public. How many of you with Incident Commander responsibility understand this?

The days of  a Public Information Officer (PIO) sitting down at a computer and generating a two paragraph media release a couple of times a day, and an interview here and there are gone.   If you still think this is all the PIO really has to do then you might as well give them an old typewriter and carbon paper. As an IC, I “define the box” the PIO will operate within (giving them the flexibility and boundaries to immediately release information without me having to approve it).  The IC needs to immediately set policy, validate key real time message concepts and then do the most important thing- let the PIO loose to do their job.  As an IC in this day and age, I can ill afford to get further behind the information dissemination curve (assuming we are already behind thanks to social media, camera cell phones, etc…).

This also means PIOs must be skilled in creating short messages, and relaying them in the most succinct way (how would you relay an evacuation order on Twitter?).  In the major events I have been involved with over the years, this type of messaging was not available.  Now, it is the preferred method of communication by many.  Yet, it remains foreign to many in the emergency response community.

IC’s need to wake up and realize the impact of the explosive growth of social media and the resulting expectation for immediate and accurate information.  If the public does not get it from Incident Command they will get it from somewhere else, relay inaccurate information and/or undermine your authority by venting their frustrations about lack of information.

Hey PIOs! How prepared are you in quickly shaping and distributing messages during a dynamic crisis event?  If you are still using the “media release” tool as your primary method of distributing information, I suggest signing up for a free social media site and see how people are really communicating news and information.  It is time for those of us with incident command authority to not only recognize the power of these tools and the resulting culture change, but more importantly take the steps to establish policy, secure training, and prepare to quickly deploy these tools during a crisis event.

3 thoughts on “A Fire Chief asks: Does ICS stand for "Information Communications Standstill"?”

  1. Hello Gerald …thanks for the great post.

    Here’s how we’re trying to get around the approvals paralysis problem.

    We’re slowing getting general buy-in from our command people on the use of pre-approved message maps that can be adapted for use by writers (news releases), by media relations officers, folks who answer public info lines and so on.

    It makes more sense to go down that route with a comprehensive set of scenario-based messaging … And if you need new key messages, all you send to the IC for approval is a message map with three key messages (and perhaps as many as three supportive messages or key facts for each one).

    Much less time consumming for IC to review this than a full news release … and the format itself is easily adaptable for all sorts of social media platforms because of the brevity of the messaging.

  2. Patrice, thanks for your comments. Very helpful suggestion–and of course works well with PIER as those pre-approved messages are all staged and ready to go.

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