Tag Archives: NIMS

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.

A No Comment Comment on the Deepwater Horizon spill

Crisisblogger readers may be wondering about my silence on the Deepwater Horizon (otherwise known as the BP Oil Spill) event. This is a crisis of unprecedented proportions–the “mother of all crises” said one of those involved. Because BP, the Coast Guard and US Dept of Interior’s Minerals Management Service, the three key agencies leading the response, are all PIER clients and our staff is very involved in the response, I will withhold comments for the time being.

There are many lessons being learned however, the most significant to me at this point is whether NIMS can survive the inadvertent damage that it is undergoing. I will say this: if NIMS is to survive and will be the way in the future for multi-agency and public/private partnerships in major responses, the entire emergency management community must unite in educating elected officials, agency representatives, the pundits, the media and the public on what NIMS is, what it says about responsibility, who runs a response, how communication is done. The profound lack of understanding from the highest office to every newsroom is seriously impacting public perception about this event.

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.

More oil spill drill lessons

One of the great benefits we have in working with the companies we do is the opportunity to participate in many different major crisis drills. From this perspective we can see how different companies and cultures approach these situations–even when the process is pretty well spelled out as it is with NIMS/ICS/JIC etc.

Having completed a couple of major drills with two of the largest oil companies exercising oil spill drills with multiple government agencies, I have a couple of observations. These relate specifically to the ability of these companies and the combined communication team of the Joint Information Center (JIC) to meet today’s incredibly high demands for information.

1) things have improved dramatically in the eight years I have been actively involved in this–in all respects. Understanding, training, technology, prioritization.

2) That being said, I believe that in a real event communication will be deemed a failure. The following explain my reasons.

3) The world has changed faster than those responsible for keeping up with it–particularly as it relates to instant news, social media, etc. While they are adapting, it is too little too late.

4) The two biggest practical problems with meeting the demand for speed are:

— the outdated notion of the physical JIC

–Incident Commanders end up making the critical decisions about strategy and speed of communication and they are woefully ill-prepared to make these decisions given their current understanding of the public information environment.

I do see that many communication managers and even a few emergency management executives understand this gap. But the biggest problem to me appears to be with the people who are training incident commanders. I have yet to see a single ICS training that does a good job of training regarding the JIC or the current information environment. JIC training itself is held completely apart from the incident commander training which leaves the PIO the responsibility of trying to convince incident commanders of what should be obvious to them.

5) There is no JIC Performance standard–most JICs do their “hot wash” or debrief and go through the lessons learned but there is no objective measurement by which they can really assess how they stack up. As a result, the lessons learned are really lost. Imagine going through school without an exam or some way of measuring learnings. Yet, this is what happens all the time and as result, improvement is much slower than it could be.

6) JICs are never really pushed. In this recent drill, the JIC sim cell member (one of our staff so he was someone who knew what he was doing) was injecting inquiries through the incident website which includes an interactive inquiry management function. In every real event, members of the media and public will use websites, email and every possible internet-based method to try to get information. But one of the JIC staff asked if he would stop sending inquiries through the web system because they didn’t want to have to deal with those–just the phone ones. And that was with just three sim cell members injecting into a JIC staff of probably 25! Imagine when that JIC has 12,000 reporters inquiring as would happen if the event they were drilling were a real one. This is a critical need and our company is investigating how we can provide an efficient way of simulating more effectively the kind of overwhelming burden a real JIC would face. Without this, everyone will continue to leave a 2-3 day exercise feeling they are in good shape to deal with the real thing.

Scaling up an ICS response and the challenges of ESF15

First, I confess this topic may be a bit esoteric for a number of crisisblogger readers. But those who deal with the alphabet soup of NIMS, ICS, JIC, PIOs, and ESF15, this could be (I say should be) a hot topic.

Here’s some quick background, then I have a question for those who have experience in dealing with this topic. In March 2003, the Department of Homeland Security created a National Incident Management System (NIMS) that required all response agencies to use the Incident Command System and its communication function, the Joint Information Center, when responding to an incident when multiple government agencies were involved.

While ICS structure and training has been pretty much standardized, the Joint Information Center (and its procedural definitions sometimes referred to as Joint Information System or JIS) has used several different and evolving models. This has been simplified (in my mind) with the introduction in Nov 07 with the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual-which very closely resembles the NRT JIC Model which in my understanding has been the primary guidance for most involved in JICs since it was introduced in 2000.

The JIC has one overriding function and objective–to be the single voice of the response. That means, according to all plans except ESF15, all communication to all audiences about the response is managed by the JIC. The one complication under this model was the “Liaison Officer” function who had responsibility for communication with those from other agencies not on scene or immediately involved in the response.

This “one voice, one message” to multiple audiences was a key component of the JIC and PIER’s (full disclosure–PIER is the communication management tool used by many PIOs and JICs around the country to help manage JIC functions and I am the founder and CEO) benefit was strongly related to the single button concept whereby all audiences (neighbors, elected officials, executives, media, investors, employees, etc.) could be simultaneously informed of the latest info. Efficiency is one big benefit, but more importantly is the understanding that each of these audiences are very demanding of the information and to manage them separately means that problems will occur relating to timing and perception of favoritism.

ESF15 defines the JIC not as the voice of the response, but one part of the External Affairs function that includes 7 different components. The JIC is restricted to dealing with the media–while the responsibility of dealing with tribal concerns, community relations, private companies, legislative matters is removed from the JIC and divided up with different people responsible and presumably a different organization for each group. Even more surprising to me, the job of information gathering and message strategy is also pulled out of the JIC and a separate organization with separate leadership is required for this.

ESF15 is the law of the land. It absolutely defines how the federal government will deal with a large scale response. There are some very positive aspects to this, but my concern, since we are deeply involved in this business is how do you transition from a JIC defined in the FEMA PIO Guidance Manual sense to an ESF15 structure.

Here is where I would like some help. If any of you dealing with this subject have insights into how this works–particularly how it actually has worked in a large scale event or even drill, I would be most interested in hearing about it. Mark Clemens from WA State EMD has been very helpful in showing how his department prepares for this transition. Essentially, as the event scales up, a liaison person is designated as the lead for each of those critical groups I mentioned, such as tribal and community relations. That person not only coordinates closely with the JIC in communication and issues of concern to the group he/she represents, but is well positioned to transition to the federally appointed person to head that function.

I can see this working and is very helpful, but I remain very concerned that the very efficiency of coordinated communication management being built into the technology will be undermined by the natural human desire to protect turf. “What do you mean you sent out the latest fact sheet update to the community leaders? How could you do that? That is MY job!” And I guess that is my real question. Given the natural turf wars that unfortunately seem to me to built into the new structure, how should those be managed when what is most critical is getting the right information to the right people right now?

I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I apologize for the excessively long post.