Category Archives: JIC

Not Sure How the Joint Information Center Can Survive This


I do not see how the Joint Information Center (JIC), as it has been conceived and implemented the past ten years, will be able to survive the Deepwater Horizon event. If I am right, this will have very significant consequences for how major environmental events are managed in the future as well as how NIMS (National Incident Management System) will be implemented in the future.

To understand the very serious implications of what is happening today, we have to go back to the Incident Command System and how it developed, particularly in the oil industry. ICS began in the early 1970s with the fire services on the West Coast. When a number of fire of agencies came together to fight a fire they found the coordination pretty difficult. Who was in charge? Who was deciding what trucks and resources should be deployed where? How and where did the critical event information come in? What do you do when one battalion chief in a podunk department won’t take orders from someone of lower rank who has been given authority in the combined response? And how does everyone know what responsibilities go with each job?

From a media and public communication standpoint, the problem was also serious. Who has the authoritative information? What is the public to think when one fire department PIO says the fire is 200 acres and another says it is 2000 acres?

The answer to this was the Incident Command System with it single command structure incorporating multiple agencies, its standardized jobs and job descriptions, its management principles such as span of control, and its insistence that rank or position outside of the response mean nothing when it relates to making assignments and reporting structure. It was brilliant and effective and has proven so in multiple responses since then. For communication, the same approach applied. The Joint Information Center, made up of PIOs from various agencies participating, established its own organization structure and information flows with the idea being to provide the single point of information, the single voice for the response. It too was effective and incredibly helpful in getting information out–relatively quickly, accurately, and without conflict or confusion.

When the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was passed after the ExxonValdez event in 1989, the Incident Command System along with the Joint Information Center was mandated for the oil industry. From that point on, the government agencies involved in a response–federal, state, local and tribal–would work in close collaboration with the Responsible Party–legally defined as the owner of the oil, not the one who caused the problem–under the Unified Command structure. Ultimately, it was the federal agency in the response, the Coast Guard for on the water events and EPA for on the land events, that held the trump card because they and only they had the option of “federalizing,” the event, that is pushing everyone else aside and taking direct control of all response activities.

OPA 90 further mandated that each company with facilities or vessels at risk of major incidences had to practice an ICS event, and every three years a “worst case scenario” event. I have been involved in planning, managing and evaluating many of these over the past ten years. The industry has spent hundreds of millions, perhaps several billion, in training, drilling, creating plans and driving this system deep into their organizations. As a result of all this work, industry response professionals and agency response managers learned to work together side-by-side in close collaboration. Extensive technology was developed to support the complex operations, technologies aimed at managing the ICS process with all its forms and procedures as well as managing the Joint Information Center and all its processes and requirements. That was the system I created, called PIER for Public Information Emergency Response. The Joint Information Center proved very effective in providing a coordinated information response enabling the media (and increasingly the public directly through incident websites) to get the best possible information, as quickly as possible from a single authoritative source.

Of course, that “single voice” didn’t necessarily play to the media’s interest in the blame game they inevitably must play. Here were the key players all standing side-by-side, providing the same information, not pointing fingers, not accusing the others, but working in concert in the public’s interest to get the job done.

In 2004 the Department of Homeland Security, under a presidential directive to create a national response structure, implemented the Incident Command System as that national response plan. It was one of the smarter things government has done. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, instead used something that was working exceptionally well and that many federal, state, local agencies and a few private companies had adopted and trained on already. DHS has invested billions in making this system effective and making certain that agencies at all levels use this system and prepare their responders to work in it effectively.

So far, so good. So why is it threatened?

The Deepwater Horizon event (that is what it was officially named by Unified Command at the beginning and all events require an official and single name), began as a typical NIMS/ICS event. BP, as the largest shareholder of the well with three owners, was named the Responsible Party. That means they were responsible for paying the bill and participating in the Unified Command structure. Unified Command was formed with the Federal On-Scene Coordinator as the Coast Guard and other agencies participating in accordance with OPA 90 and NIMs. A National Incident Commander was named as this was the first Spill of National Significance since that was designated again as part of OPA 90.

As is called for in all the plans, a Joint Information Center was set up as soon as Unified Command was formed. All the agencies came together, including BP, to unify the communications operation using PIER as the communication system that all would operate on. the years of experience that the Coast Guard and BP had with the system was a strong benefit in getting the JIC off to a strong start. Under NIMS and ICS rules, Unified Command has the final authority over all information released. No one involved in the response–no government agency, no private party, no contractor, no research vessel, no one — is to communicate outside of that structure. It is the only way of insuring a “single voice” and maintaining information discipline. The Sago Mine disaster was one example of where the loss of information discipline was exceedingly painful and caused unnecessary distress when JIC rules were broken. On the PIER JIC website, the logos of all the response agencies were displayed along with BP as the Responsible Party (RP in ICS lingo).

That is, until Sec. Napolitano arrived a couple of days into the event. Suddenly all agency logos were removed, the event was renamed the BP Oil Spill, and the messaging from Unified Command starting taking on a strategic intent to innoculate any federal agency from any blame and to focus all media scrutiny and public outrage on BP. While the logos returned a few hours later, I’m assuming after the Secretary was informed of how the National Incident Management System that her agency promulgates is supposed to work, and the original incident name response, the use of Unified Command for political messaging has never stopped from that point.

As I pointed out earlier, this messaging has gone through a couple of phases. First, the administration tried to avoid any blame by saying it was all on BP and it was the administration’s job to hold them accountable and put a boot on their neck. This was in direct opposition to the reality on the ground which was a Unified Command response all along, under the direct control of the coordinated federal agencies. But not a single reporter picked up on this. This shows how hopelessly out of touch the media are with the realities of NIMS and what Unified Command means. No one, none, challenge this strategy by even asking what the National Incident Commander was there for or asking what the role of a Federal On-Scene Coordinator was. Nor did they seem able to put two and two together to ask a question that if BP was doing everything, why are so many people in uniform so visible?

But what the administration apparently didn’t anticipate, aside from the fundamental dishonesty of this message, is that the calls would increase for the federal government to take over the response. Why are they letting BP run this thing when it clearly is failing? Why isn’t Obama stepping in to take charge. The pressure mounted until on May 28 at a press conference the president announced that well, actually, the federal government was in charge all along. Oh, said the press corp. The first question (and one of the first insightful ones) was if that is the case, why did the EPA send the letter to BP asking them to find different dispersants if the federal government was managing the response, including the use of dispersants all along? Exactly.

In the days since May 28, BP has been pushed from the scene publicly as far as communication is concerned. Now the federal government stands alone in the media appearances. And Unified Command messages have become more and more political in tone even while they continue to do their best to get the relevant information out about the event and the response activities. What do I mean by taking over the Unified Command messaging? Here is the primary release from the Unified Command on June 4:

Speaking alongside federal officials and Gulf Coast governors, the President sharply criticized BP for spending money on a public relations campaign.
“I don’t have a problem with BP fulfilling its legal obligations,” the President said. “But I want BP to be very clear—they’ve got moral and legal obligations here in the Gulf for the damage that has been done. And what I don’t want to hear is, when they’re spending that kind of money on their shareholders and spending that kind of money on TV advertising, that they’re nickel-and-diming fishermen or small businesses here in the Gulf who are having a hard time.”

I have no objection whatsoever to this kind of messaging being issued by the White House media machine–it is perfectly appropriate for the president to say whatever he wants. But to use Unified Command as an adjunct to the White House communication operation means that Unified Command will likely never again be trusted by any private company or public agency that does want its reputation to reside in the hands of the administration.

What makes this doubly troublesome is the fact that BP has been very aggressive in claims management and a Unified Command release a day or two before this reported that BP had to date paid every claim it had been able to process. Not a single claim was denied and the announcement had just been made that BP had agreed to additional loss of income payments going forward. The accusation about nickling and diming was unfair and inappropriate if done from the Rose Garden, but to be done using the communication machinery of Unified Command will likely have long term devastating consequences.

Further, BP’s so-called PR campaign is to focus attention on the response website. While the media has been playing the administration’s game in lockstep, even while desperately seeking every day for a scoop to further inflame public outrage, those who get their information from the response website do have a substantially different picture of the response than those who get their information only from the media. I discovered this anecdotally when discussing the response. If someone was entirely negative about BP and the response, I asked if they had been to the website or subscribed to the updates. Those who had been to the site regularly were more critical of the media coverage, and those who had not were only critical of the response. Why wouldn’t BP in those circumstances want the public to know about this information source. The media was not pointing people to the site. Why would the administration find it a problem to want people to get their information directly rather than filtered through the media whose job is to get eyes on their screen every day on this story? And especially when the administration has highjacked the Joint Information Center and is using it for their political messages?

Yes, I am deeply disturbed about the future of the National Incident Management System, ICS, and the JIC. Since I am personally involved right now in writing plans for several of the major urban areas of the nation for how they come together in a major event to communicate in a coordinated way, it is a very relevant issue. What do I say to the Mayor’s office of a major city when they realize that if it is in the current administration’s best interest to focus the media’ blame game on them to avoid any blame falling on the administration, how can I convince them that they should stay within the information discipline bounds of NIMS? Since I’m also writing plans for other major oil companies, how can those plans be focused on participation in the JIC when it is most likely in a major event for that very tool to be used to an extreme degree against them and even used to criticize their own efforts to communicate how they are responding?

If there are others working on such plans and wondering what this means for your agencies,your regions or your company’s crisis communication plans under the National Incident Management System, I’d like to hear from you. Hopefully you can reassure me that it is not a significant issue, that I am reading this wrong, that once the “BP Spill” is over that life under NIMS will return to normal. However, if you are also concerned perhaps we can begin the discussion at some senior policy levels as to how to prevent this catastrophe (not talking about the spill here) from happening again.

Media-centered thinking and the new JIC plans

Several recent events have reinforced the media-centered focus of so many in crisis communication. Although evidence of the post-media world is all around and growing daily, most leaders responsible for planning a communication response still think that the job is about managing the media.

To wit: new plans coming out of DHS relating to the Joint Information Center–the primary vehicle by which government agencies work together to coordinate communications in a major event. In the latest iteration, known as ESF 15 (Emergency Support Function 15) the JIC has been completely gutted. Today’s JICs that I am familiar with manage all aspects of the information relating to an incident including gathering and preparing the information, distribution to multiple audiences including the media but also key stakeholders, government officials, other response agencies and the like. In the new version, the JIC has one job–to serve as the “news desk” responding to media inquiries. All other jobs have been parsed out. Even “Planning and Production” is a new department, separate from the JIC and responsible for developing messages. It seems one lesson coming out of Katrina is that government communicators need their own “spin-cycle,” a kind of political war room requiring strategy discussions and message development. What happened to the idea that the JIC should know what is going on, prepare the basic facts for public release, get Incident Commander approval, and get it out as far and wide as possible?

Other tasks such as community relations, government officials, tribal contacts, etc., are all separated out with their own structure, organization charts, connections to the External Affairs lead. I see a recipe for disaster. If this is supposed to be an improvement over the communication disaster FEMA experienced during Katrina (which it is according to the FEMA presenter I heard) then I think the next big FEMA event is going to be even worse. If it isn’t, I’m betting it will be because they threw out ESF 15 and did things the way experienced communicators know they need to be done.

Other evidence of this media-centric approach. Some government agencies are considering replacing their comprehensive communication management approach with technology that supports only media engagement. Talk about taking a step backwards. While most of the world is waking up to the fact that in this social-media world, this post-media world, more and more of the conversation is going on directly by the affecter and those affected. But these agency heads have had their heads in the sand while these changes are going on and are trying to tell the folks down the line who actually have to do the work, that only the media matters. What are they going to do when they get hammered by neighbors, constituents, elected officials? Their only answer will be to read the newspaper or watch tv. Why don’t they just go back to the US postal service I wonder.

Why the response guys don't get it

Traveling through the Southeast and East Coast on a business trip during a heat wave in the middle of August is not my idea of fun. But I must say, the Riverwalk in Augusta, Georgia is a surprising delight–even on a very warm evening.

I can’t be specific here but I was talking to Dan, my traveling companion about the respect (or more correctly, lack of it) that communication people have in the response circles. Having worked with professionals in emergency management, oil spill response, disaster planning, etc., I am quite convinced that most leaders involved in planning for and managing large scale responses tend to think that they are better at dealing with public information than the seasoned professionals they usually have available to them to manage this task. I think they think they can handle the media better, run a public meeting better, deal with stakeholder questions, etc. They only let the PIOs and communication professionals do what they do because they are usually too busy doing the important work of response management or response planning.

The sad truth, from my perspective, is most of these very smart and capable men and women are very much out of touch with the realities of public information. And they will only know that when it hits the fan and they look back and realize how ill prepared they were to deal with the realities of a post-media world. Communicators have far too little clout when it comes to the essential planning steps of a coordinated, multi-agency or large scale response. It’s a lot there own fault, I believe, for not assuming a more strategic posture in the planning process, but it also the fault of those seasoned response professionals.

I was talking to one professional today in this business who is in a very responsible position and who definitely does get it. We agreed that the key for many of these who have their heads up their, uh, sand, is to experience a major event themselves. Only in the aftermath of a Virginia Tech or Minnesota bridge incident will some of these wake up to the realities of public information management. And short of that, because we certainly cannot wish for such catastrophes, the best way to do large scale drills in as realistic a mode as possible. That’s when even the most confident eyes tend to open a bit. Communicators needs to push and push and push that response drills include a very large communication component. No namby pamby let’s have someone call into the JIC and pose a few juvenile media-type questions. It’s got to be full slam to the wall with overloads coming at the PIOs from a hundred directions at once.

For example, in the Virginia Tech incident, there were 1000 reporters on the scene!  1000! How many more were trying to reach those beleaguered JICers trying to keep up with the crush? Let alone family members, community members, students, governors, local leaders, etc., etc., etc.

No question at all that emergency management professionals have a tough job to do. But, as Katrina showed, ultimately the measure of the job they do in a real emergency will depend on communications. Precisely those people they tend to ignore and discount right now.

The JIC Exercise

If you read my post of a couple of days ago you know I expressed some great concerns about the upcoming major drill. Since I am normally the PIO for the organization involved, I was very concerned about the intent of one agency to assume that role and what it would mean for our ability to do the job at hand. It worked out very well. The agency representative served as PIO with me as Deputy and it really couldn’t have gone better. We were very well prepared to communicate and he was very impressed with being able to come into a situation and really hit the ground running. Since we use PIER, the Joint Information Center software application, we had some concerns about the information in the system being visible to everyone in the JIC which is a very good point and something we will work on. We had problems, as always, getting Unified Command approval of the next information releases but learned what is probably the most valuable lesson of all. Don’t give them press release verbiage to approve. They love to wordsmith. Instead, give them key facts in bullet form and spoon feed it on a continual basis one or small group of facts at a time and get them to approve the information–not the way it is presented. Once we started doing that with bullets to add to fact sheets, it went much faster and we were able to substantially pick up the pace of continual information updates.

Those who had not seen our JIC operation at work, were amazed that we are able to push out of PIER a continual flow of updated information to pre-staged audiences–not just media, but community leaders, elected officials, response groups, activists and NGO, and many others. Once information is approved, it literally takes 30 seconds to get it up on the website and email or fax to thousands. And of course, what was not lost on anyone was with the inquiry management function, you really didn’t have to be in the JIC to work together on responding to the inquiries.

Another lesson was on JIC truth and what it takes today. We tried some new things that worked very well but I will save that for another post.

Joint Information Center trials and tribulations

If you’ve been in a Joint Information Center (JIC) you know that the concept is one thing, reality is another. For those who are JIC-less, a Joint Information Center is the communication function of the Incident Command System, which since 2003, is the federally mandated management system used to respond to all crises and emergency events where there is more than one agency or group responding. The response team responds with the operations, planning, logistics, finance and administration while the Joint Information Center provides the eyes, ears and mouth for the operation communicating with the media and stakeholders.

The JIC concept is very solid and has proven its value in multiple major events. It provides a single voice for the response despite there being multiple agencies involved, and makes it possible to exercise communication discipline under the leadership of the Incident Command. For example, if you have several different government agencies responding, from a large federal agency such as the EPA, to a local department of Emergency Management, plus some state ecology or transportation or health departments, the media would naturally contact any and all agencies involved in the response. The Minnesota bridge collapse provides a good example. If you were a reporter, who would approach to get the best, fastest, most accurate, most colorful information? You would try multiple sources, of course. With a JIC, there is only one place to go. One phone number (or set of numbers), one website, one email address, one set of facts, one PIO (public information officer) and one Incident Command (made up of commanders from the different agencies). One voice. It saves lots of time, it makes it more efficient, it helps make certain the information provided is as accurate as it can be, and it assures that those most responsible have control over what is being said about the response. Like I said, a great idea.

I am about to head out to another large-scale Joint Information Center operation. I am supposed to be the PIO as I have been for the past 8 years. But I won’t be. The simple reason is politics. The rules of ICS and JIC have been designed specifically to avoid politicizing and in-fighting, but that’s what gets me to my original comment. If any of you have been involved in JIC or ICS operations you know that it is dang near impossible to keep the politics and in-fighting out of just about anything. And so it goes. But, as in all things in life, you do your best to get along and go along and as far as it is possible be at peace with all others. If even if it means sitting back and watching a process that is important to you fall apart. I’ll let you know how it goes. No doubt I will learn important new lessons and that is what it is all about.

Oil Spill Communications–free online conference

If you are in communications in the oil business chances are you have been involved in JICs (Joint Information Centers). In which case, you may be interested in the online conference I will be speaking at this week. If you are not in the oil business, but know you need to know more about JICs and how large multi-agency response teams work together to get the word out in today’s instant information world, you will still find this interesting.

To find out more, and also to learn about a massive oil spill drill going on in the midwest this week (using our communication technology of course), read pierblog. The online conference is free and you can register online at the link provided on pierblog or at www.piersystem.com.

By the way, speaking with me will be my good friend and highly respected communicator Neil Chapman, Director of Communications for BP North America.

The satisfying validation of pioneering a whole new concept–Virtual Joint Information Centers

I hope my patient readers will allow me a little self-congratulations here. Once in a while, if you are lucky, you get a brief and fleeting sense that maybe what you are doing is making a difference and changing the world even just a little. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I became involved in a major oil industry disaster. It involved a fuel pipeline explosion that took three lives and since I was contracted to one of the oil companies involved, I became very involved in the communication response including serving as spokesperson for the company. I learned a lot and it was my first experience with an ICS (Incident Management System) response including the use of Joint Information Center or JIC.

The communications were a disaster–despite our best efforts. And it was largely about the lack of technology needed to meet the high demands for information from the media, neighbors, government officials, agency leaders, etc. Attorneys were involved–enough said. Out of that experience came my book (Now Is Too Late2) and a communication management technology now widely recognized as the leading urgent and critical communication management system. Out of it also came a concept which the technology expressed and made possible–the idea of virtual JICs.

The idea is simple: Joint Information Centers as conceived and currently implemented flat out don’t work. Too slow. They depend on communicators from a variety of different organizations getting physically together in one room, getting all the needed technology hooked up, getting all the lists and tools they need to work with together, getting them organized, coordinated and properly directed. All that is very possible and happens all the time. It’s just that it takes days, not hours or minutes. And minutes and hours is what you have to work with in these days of instant news, blogs, fulltime all the time news channels and the like. For long term events, it still is possible and necessary to pull a big JIC together–but that is after the virtual JIC has been at work.

The virtual JIC depends on technology. A complete and comprehensive technology platform that allows a dispersed team to function as if they were all in the same room. And it also depends on universally accessible technology–because a JIC by definition includes communicators from a variety of organizations that normally don’t work together and frequently don’t even get along. So using one organization’s tool without providing full and complete access to all the players simply doesn’t work.

That was our concept. It works–it has been proven in major oil industry events, major government events (such as the G8 Summit), major weather events and natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina. It is at work all over the world right now.

We’ve been trying to gain attention and understanding of the concept of virtual JICs for over five years. And now, here is the point of all this, we have some validation. Out of the Ohio State Public Health Department, a researcher by the name of Bret Atkins has analyzed the concept of Virtual Joint Information Centers and in a very academic mode, has evaluated the idea and its potential. Here is the strongest external, sober-minded, non-commercial and completely unbiased analysis of this idea since the days it first hatched.

The White Paper: “The Virtual Joint Information Center: A Technological Tool for Public Health Emergency Communication.”

I hope that Mr. Atkin’s call for continued evaluation of this concept will bear fruit and that his study will result in national level recognition of the importance of this for public safety as well as for protecting and enhancing reputations.

Crisis management basics and ICS

It’s easy for me who is into the communication and communication technology game to forget that crisis communication starts with an effective crisis response. In working with clients, I have to keep going back to the basics of crisis management. It’s been a great benefit to me to have had much exposure to the Incident Command System. If you are not familiar with ICS and you have anything to do with managing crises for your organization, I strong advise you to become familiar.

ICS was created in the 1970s by the fire service. It was designed to help manage a fast moving event (like a wildfire) when there are multiple agencies involved. The problem was simple. You have all these people show up to help. They have their own ways of doing things, their own command structure, their own language, their own communication technologies like radios, their own cultures, their own attitudes, etc. How do you get them to all cooperate and work together. The answer is a very simple, scalable management structure that everyone must learn and adhere to. Plus other key principles such as interoperability of systems.

ICS has been proven to be very effective. It moved out from the fire service into fire departments, emergency management departments and eventually some federal agencies like the Coast Guard. From there it began moving into the private sector, largely because of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, the post-ExxonValdez legislation. This law requires oil companies, shipping companies and those dealing with oil near the water to conduct annual drills with the Coast Guard and other local and state agencies. These drills as well as actual spills always use ICS.

I first became aware of ICS in the middle of a major incident involving a gasoline pipeline explosion with three fatalities and an entire community in shock. Since then I have been involved in dozens of incidents and drills using ICS and have adapted it for use in responding to crises for almost any kind of organization. If you have interest, comment here and I will send you my own basic document.

Utility Communicators

Just returned from speaking at the Utility Communicators International conference held in San Francisco. I’d heard of the old Mark Twain quote before, “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” but I never knew what it meant. While it was in the 80s back home in Bellingham we just about froze in Fog City.

Interacting with some of the professional communicators at this conference brought home some of the key issues that are continually being raised here. There was incredulity about the idea of corporate blogging, and only about 1/4 had heard of wikipedia. More surprising to me was the fact that almost no one had any familiarity with the Incident Command System and its communication element, the Joint Information Center. More about that in future posts, but it is my strong opinion that everyone in crisis management and communication needs to have strong familiarity with these–and particularly if there is any chance of having to work with any local or state first responder agency such as police, fire or emergency response. Everyone will be playing a game and you will be asked to play, but you won’t have a clue as to what the rules are. That sucks.

We had a good discussion at lunch about blogging and the role of the internet in crisis management. I am more and more convinced as I talk to communicators out there that the coming culture conflict between audiences and communicators will be more challenging and disruptive than anything we can imagine. Corporate speak doesn’t work in a time of when authenticity is prized above all. But I like the question of one gentleman sitting at the front: “Did corporate speak ever work?”