Emergency Public Information Structures

NIMS, ICS, NRT, JIC, JIS;  As public affairs professionals in emergency response, we’ve come to know and understand a variety of anagrams, acronyms and jargon.  We’ve been told that NIMS (the National Incident Management System) is how we should operate – in a purely Incident Command System (ICS) structure, using the National Response Team (NRF) Joint Information Center (JIC) model, which tells us how to operate the Joint Information System(JIS)… the problem is, there are often situations where a formal Joint Information Center is not possible, and may have to be structured to meet the political and operational objectives of a response.

Unified Command or Not?

Unified Command, as defined by NIMS, is a fantastic way to approach singular responses.  As ICS, which is the backbone of NIMS, was developed by wild land firefighters, it’s uniquely designed to deal with a specific incident, in a specific area, within a specific time period.  But a majority of responses that emergency public information officers are engaged in will exceed a specific jurisdiction, specific geographic area, and will have effects across an entire area.  When severe weather, such as a flood, hurricane or heat wave strike – you’re not seeing a specific footprint and singular incident you can control – you’re seeing effects across the entire region.

The big, hairy elephant in the room is politics.  Some governments and agencies, especially smaller and medium-sized organizations,  are very adept and unifying with a neighboring jurisdiction and acting under a single authority.  The problem is, the larger, more complex those organizations are – the more difficult it becomes to quickly “switch off” the normal, day-to-day culture and “switch on” the unified, singular structure.

Oftentimes, we find ourselves coordinating across jurisdictional lines, rather than integrating our responses.  Is that bad?  Are we terrible emergency managers for doing that?  Not necessarily.  Many times it is whats needed to keep the ship afloat – to keep everyone on task.  Developing structures that coordinate, rather than control are often the best.

Public Information in Multi-Jurisdictional Settings

Does this mean that everyone sets up their own structures and doesn’t talk to each other?  Absolutely not… Oftentimes, you have to find a “sweet spot” that blends the need of retaining political autonomy, and finding a unified “voice” when dealing with large-scale incidents.  Coordination via phone, email, text, or in person can still happen without people operating under a unified command structure.  Ensuring that language is the same or similar, that protective actions are clearly defined and done in consistent, predictable language, and ensuring that the release of information an be timed to meet the incident objectives can still be done.

Undoubtedly, there will be differences of opinion, and it will be the job of the lead PIO for each jurisdiction to make judgement calls to attempt to ensure that the consistent message is going out, but it won’t always be perfect.

Forming a coordination structure that lies outside of a formal JIC is often the best way to do this.  In longer-term incidents, it’s often required to have a joint conference call to coordinate information across an area and ensure that messaging and timing is consistent.

Additionally, in the world of social media, sharing each other’s information is often as easy as the click of a mouse.  Some agencies will have louder, more pronounced voices, and it is their responsibility to ensure that smaller, less visible agencies still have their voices heard.  Sharing information with media and the public that is not necessarily “owned” by you – and directing those people back to their official sources of information is critical in incidents.

Working together to ensure that the public knows where to get the best information for themselves is crucial.  A best practice is to develop a web presence that links people back to their individual communities, so that if they come upon an account that isn’t specifically their community – it can serve as a way to connect them to their official sources of information (see readyhoustontx.gov/partners.html)

Figuring it Out

This isn’t something that can be done in the middle of the fight.  Work ahead of time to ensure that connections are made, emails are being shared, and structures exist for the coordination of information in these incidents.  Stay.in.your.lane.  If it’s not your jurisdiction, or subject matter expertise – share the right information from the agency with that authority.

This process requires that egos be overcome in the interest of public safety.  We’re all ultimately on the same team.  Let’s find a way to remember that as we respond.

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