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Sunday, September 18, 2016

The future of emergency management collaboration is virtual

Image result for virtual collaboration

For old geezers like me (I'll be 55 soon !) learning new tricks as someone involved in emergency management and VOST work takes more and more of the little flexibility left in my brain. I can still manage the jump from Skype to Slack or WhatsApp or learning how to do new search strings on Hootsuite or Tweedeck ... but just.

A key component of the effectiveness of the Virtual Operations Support Team concept is virtual collaboration .... the assignment of tasks remotely ... working together with a team whose members I've never met. For some new VOSTies, that takes a bit of getting used to.

But I have no fear that the next generation of emergency managers won't be able to manage. Fact is, young people already collaborate in a virtual fashion every day to accomplish various tasks. How? They play online multiplayer games.

For example, I watch my son play a game online and collaborate with many other players to get things done on a map ... mostly they don't know each other ... yet they are able to work together ... organically some order appears and results are achieved.

That points to the fantastic pool of resources available to EM agencies across the world. Something that's already been tapped into and exploited for good during large-scale disasters. The Internet Response League is one such organizations using the enthusiasm and digital expertise of gamers.
This supports two key trends for EM officials and first responders. First, there's the growing reliance on digital volunteers who bring expertise not always on hand in EOCs  ... And second, IMHO, the EM world is slowly moving to its own version of the C5I command and control concept ...Some thoughts: 

Command: incidents are getting more and more complex ... unified and even a more diffused command structure is becoming more adapted to deal with all the various facets of an emergency ...
Control: technology and virtual tools have made some aspect of the span of control precept a bit outdated ... with crowdsourcing, span of control is irrelevant ... especially if dozens, hundreds of people are working on a solution collaboratively ...
Communications: closed-in agency-limited comms nets/methods hinder collaboration ... interoperability now involves the public and digital volunteers ... EOCs need access to all available nets.
Computers: while OpSec and cyberthreat issues remain vital concerns ... EM agencies must have in place a process to share and access data from a multitude of platforms ... some using open source software ... not many agencies are there yet ... again digital volunteers lead the way in that regard.
Collaboration: there must be procedures in place in EOCs to facilitate inter-agency cooperation and now, most importantly, working with digital volunteers ... Official acceptance of the value brought by digivols is growing as the realization of the effectiveness and surge capability they can bring to an official response dawns on senior officials.
Intelligence: when all five Cs work as they should ... when EOC plug into the world of social data available to them ... with the aggregation and analysis performed by crisis mappers and VOST teams .. EOC managers get the most important thing they need to make better decisions in the allocation of strategic resources: actionable intel ... that's priceless ...

Coming back to my son ... when he and his online team tackle hordes of zombies ... they do so in teams that coalesce ... self-direct ...self-correct and yet, organically move to a kind of diffused command system that works ...

That's why asymetric warfare can be so effective (think Crimea or Eastern Ukraine) ... In a way. all of that. makes command and efforts to vanquish the enemy ... a lot more resilient ...

Food for thoughts for my EM friends !

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Social convergence in emergency management, what next?

Trying to determine where technological advances will take the world of emergency management and EOCs next is a bit like trying to predict what new kind of social network will be hip with teenagers next year ... In other words, it's hard to say ...

Social convergence (the union of mobile tech, social networks and associated trends) and its impact on EM is always evolving ... but I believe a few trends will stay relevant.

First, the use of digital volunteers will become more common in EOC and EM planning ... I've touched on that subject recently. The role of Virtual Operations Support Teams (VOSTs) in particular will be a critical consideration. 

Few organizations have the capability to put together a full team to monitor social media during an incidentLarge agencies such as the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene can put together a team to perform social listening in an emergency. They have done so successfully. But it's a big task, with lots of resources and staff needed which are not available to everyone. Hence the need for volunteers from outside the organization.

VOST teams are not the only game in town (although they can be used as a one-window approach by digital volunteers into the official realm of EM). Crisis mappers will also play a larger role in helping situational awareness. There are organizations of crisis mappers globally that can rely on outstanding reputation for stepping up with quality products during large-scale disasters. Chances are. a number of their volunteers know your area and could help if an incident occurs near you. Here, crowdsourcing is the name of the game.

The second trend I see reaching quasi-orbital velocity ... is the use of robotics and drones.  This is already happening at ever quickening pace in places such as Nepal where extremely detailed maps were produced by using high-tech to help in the aftermath of severe flooding.

Drones, robots and other new developments can bring connectivity after a disaster, deliver aid and provide command with aerial imagery that would be otherwise difficult to obtain. They can help EOC mangers and incident commanders decide the best route to deliver supplies and aid such as in the hours following flooding in Houston earlier this year:

Drones are good!  Repeat after me: drones are good! Despite some morons using drone to harass residents, put aircraft in danger and generally being obnoxious, there's no denying the good they can do in a disaster.

Drones and robots can help responders get places where they normally couldn't go such as in the Fukushima's damaged nuclear power station:

These two trends I've identified so far (the use of digivols + robotics/drones) can be combined to give us the third trend: 3-D, real time imagery and mapping. Nothing tells a story or can provide ICs and EOCs with an instant understanding of how in incident is evolving, as well as a map and a picture ... and why not?  both at the same time.

This is the new frontier in crowdsourcing, robotics and GIS-tech ... instant depiction of what's going on.  Imagine a map created as responders walk into any building or structure ... that reflects whatever changes caused by the incident.

The lesson here for first responders and emergency managers is that .... it's hard to keep up! But fortunately, there are serious enthusiasts out there who can help ... many are professional EM folks. engineers and tech-savvy individuals eager to help their community. Tapping into that expertise will make your job easier!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Of baskets and binders: why words matter especially in a crisis

There is little that's routine in an election campaign ... things might not be at the "big crisis" level ... but being prepared and avoiding communications regret is critical.

Crisis comms is really about avoiding regret: being prepared to say what you want/need to say ... and being able to avoid saying something you shouldn't ... In both cases, a crisis comms technique such as message mapping will help you be as ready as you can be. Learning about that process developed by Dr.Vince Covello is a must for any communicator.

Improvisation in a crisis, or even at a campaign event, can lead to almost fatal mistakes. 
Secretary Clinton learned about the pitfalls of generalization and putting huge part of the electorate in the "crazy" basket: 
Maybe it was planned all along ... but to me ... that generalization proved more damaging than the point she was trying to make ... A better approach might have been to say something like: 
"We know some of Mr. Trump's supporters are not among the most admired ... the racists, bigots, etc ... I'm sure that the majority of decent Americans who support him do so because they have been left behind and are angry ...their voice matters and I am listening to their anger and frustration ... "

A better approach offers a bit more nuance ... 

Sometimes, one colorful image can undo a whole life's worth of promoting equality and the role of women in the higher echelons of politics, government and business ... Just ask Mitt Romney about "binders full of women" ... a bad turn of phrase that totally undermined his message ... just watch the full video below:

Under stress, many successful executives and even experiences politicians and spokespersons will slip up ... That's why preparation and practice are so crucial to face a crisis with confidence.

And then of course, is Donald Trump ,,, who consistently creates crises of his own making ... suffers from the worst case of misogyny and verbal diarrhea imaginable when his expresses his views on women: 

Short of a total apology and retiring to a monastery on some remote island ...there's nothing that can be repaired there by even the most experienced crisis comms practitioner ...some things ( like the tobacco industry ...) are just indefensible ... 

In the end, being prepared will help you detect, possibly even avoid ... and certainly help you deal more efficiently with the communications challenges of a crisis or emergency. Relying on the boss' expertise and experience ...without a solid crisis comms plan ...without even exercising the one you might have ... all that will leave you totally exposed to just one bad turn of phrase or slip up ...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Expanding collaboration between digital volunteers and emergency ops centres

For true believers, the VOST (Virtual Operations Support Team) concept is already a proven, effective emergency management tool. There are now teams around the world and more are coming online ( such as in Germany) to help monitor social networks during disasters/incidents. 

But for many emergency managers, the digital volunteer world remains somewhat of a mystery ... not distrusted as such ... but the subject of some hesitation in the path of acceptance. Thankfully, that number is diminishing as social convergence takes hold in emergency management agencies. 

I've written about the relationship between digivols and agencies in the past. But, here are seven principles I believe could spur the collaboration between VOSTs and emergency management agencies, EOCs and even first responders, They require involvement and openness from both sides:

It all starts with communications and outreach.
For VOSTs: leaders should actively promote their team and capability to local authorities, state/provincial agencies and even NGOs. Meeting face-to-face (or IRL) will help build trust for future virtual collaborations. A quick presentation might help do the trick and showcase VOST capabilities.
For EMAs/EOCs: PIOs (because they are often the conduit with outside stakeholders) and other emergency managers should find out what digital volunteer organizations are active in their jurisdiction ...Is there a VOST in your state? Or an existing group of volunteers who could add a digital component to their support? 

In terms of explaining what the relationship between VOSTs and EOCs/EMAs could bring for both parties.
For VOSTs: because team members are also often members or very familiar with other volunteer technological communities, VOSTs can act as buffer and intermediary between digivols and official agencies.
for EMAs/EOCs: that particular aspect of the VOST role could mean a one-window approach into officialdom during disasters/emergencies ...something officials really like (especially to minimize their perceived risks).

Many VOST members/leaders are experienced EM practitioners and know what kind of support an EOC might need.
For VOSTs: translating EM experience into the digital world helps professional development and allows team members to stay current with tech adoption such as crowdsourcing, crisis mapping and data mining for disasters.
For EMAs/EOCs: when working with a VOST, official agencies and EOCs can tap into a brand new pool of available expertise with a knowledge of their basic language, ops cycle and so on ...

The use of digivols by official agencies can provide them with a better understanding of how incidents evolve and how their stakeholders are coping
For VOSTs: teams need to have the ability to provide their client (local/state EOCs for example) with actionable intel such as regular reports (routine for each EOC ops cycle, command for each 4/6 hour period, urgent for life/public safety threats). This is based on data aggregation, info and trends analysis from the VOST listening operation.
For EMAs/EOCs: receiving reports highlighting trends in social conversations related to an emergency, with relevant examples (pics, videos, maps) goes a long way in proving the value of digivols to incident commanders or EOC managers/directors ... it eliminates SOCIAL NOISE ... transforms it into ACTIONABLE INTEL which leads to better decision making and a better allocation of strategic resources.

Building Capacity
Sharing strengths and maximizing resources
For VOSTs: the key aspect of VOST interventions is the ability of team members to operate outside the area of operations ... be self-sustainable and quasi-autonomous ... they bring value to EOCs without adding to the burden of emergency managers handling things locally.
For EMAs/EOCs: in a world where financial and other resources are very limited, pre-existing arrangement for the activation of a VOST team can lead to great leaps in surge capability for local agencies/EOCs. People can be assigned to other duties ... for example, often freeing up the PIO for more direct engagement and emergency info work with the public.

Because working together brings trust 
For VOSTs: a regular exercise schedule and collaboration with official agencies helps teams retain volunteers, offer training and build experience. It's a must for any team wanting to establish official links. CanVOST was really lucky to take part in the CAUSE III Canada-US experiment a couple of years ago. It opened many doors.
For EMAs/EOCs: exercises bring familiarity with the workings of digivols and VOST teams. Better, it brings acceptance so when the real deal comes ... that operational link and clear expectations are already there. Again, the CAUSE III initiative helped that understanding along on both sides of the border at the local, state/provincial and federal levels.

Technology adoption
Digivols are often at the leading edge whereas official agencies can lack behind ...VOSTs can help bridge the gap.
For VOSTs: most team members stay current on social platforms people turn to during an emergency ... stay abreast of new monitoring tools ... are alert to changes in social behaviour ... they use new tools all the time for inner team workings and for virtual collaboration. They can bring that awareness to official agencies.
For EMAs/EOCs: working with VOSTs offer a brand new window on tech changes that impact emergency management and allow officials to stay better connected and informed about the needs of the people they serve. That breaking down of barriers (in terms of tech adoption and aversion to risk by officials) is a key by-product of collaboration with a VOST.

I'm sure there are many more concepts that could be introduced here but the point is that the EM table keeps expanding and digivols bring value to any EOC.

Some key VOST resources here.

A note: I remain forever grateful for the work of VOST pioneers (Jeff, Cheryl, Joanna, Caroline, Scott, Marlita, Marina... and many others ...) as well as the leadership of CanVOST (Guylaine, Corey ...) for helping me learn over the years.

Monday, August 15, 2016

When the boss IS the crisis ... survival tips for the communicator

Successful leaders and executive have achieved their status because they most often drive the agenda. They set the tone. But what happens when they no longer "drive the show"? 

In some cases. senior executives, elected officials and other leaders have a hard time dealing when events dictate their actions. It's reality that might be foreign to many of them.

And, when the "boss" makes the crisis worse (or even creates it ...) the challenges are multiplied. Think of how long it took the leadership of the railway responsible for the Lac Mégantic disaster to occupy the public space following the event: dozens dead, a downtown destroyed and a communications response so pathetic it's now a case study in what NOT to do: 

Even months later, the "boss" still hadn't got it: 

Another example, is the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf ... Sometimes, leaders need to understand that it's not about them: 

Also, in many occasions, the "boss" IS NOT be the best spokesperson:

That was clearly a language issue but the reactions were still predictably angry.

Leaders with a social media presence can also put themselves in hot water
Kenneth Cole did it:
Image result for kenneth cole twitter fail

And some guy running for POTUS thinks he's a master of Twitter too: 

Image result for trump twitter fail

And that brings us to Donald Trump ... The GOP candidate is a crisis creating machine all on his own
Campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Defending his positions is a challenge that is also obviously beyond the expertise of his main spokesperson who mixes up historical facts, invents false stories and appears as separated from reality as her boss. 

In a crisis (as in politics), confidence and projecting an air of authority is critical ...when your actions result in the opposite ... well, you get this.

So what's a real communicator to do? Here are five things that can help:

  1. influencing ... know your principal ... understand his/her motivations, demonstrate how your advice can make THEM look better 
  2. coaching ... if you have the experience, you can coach your boss in how to handle the media and other stakeholders in a crisis, how to stick to the message and avoid improvisation
  3. preparing ... if you do your boss justice, you'll have a solid crisis comms plan ready based on various scenarios, snappy key messages for every audience ...
  4. repairing ... if your boss comes across as unprepared (or worse, uncaring) you'll do your best to show empathy, knowledge and optimism ... and not make things worse (see above re: Trump and Pierson)
  5. learning ... you'll use every opportunity to learn from a crisis or even a well handled issue that didn't make it to the crisis stage ... and show your boss how he/she came out a winner ...
And if all that fails ... it should leave you with only once possible course of action: bailing ...