Scaling up an ICS response and the challenges of ESF15

June 3, 2008

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.

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3 Responses to “Scaling up an ICS response and the challenges of ESF15”

  1. Kami Huyse Says:

    Can’t say I have any great ideas on this one, but it seems that these processes on top of processes might ruin a great idea. The JIC was a great invention, I am just sorry to see it watered down.

  2. Phil Pfuhl Says:

    Mr. Clemens did an excellent job of translating the draft PIO guidance from a document primarily addressing a federal audience to one suitable for all levels of government, as well as non-governmental organizations. Kudos to he and his FEMA team mates on their working together and creating a document thats aligned with the principles of NIMS. Emergency Public Information is different than Public Affairs and FEMA 517/November 2007 demonstrates this well.

  3. gbaron Says:

    Just so that everyone knows–Phil is one guy who really knows this stuff! Thanks Phil, and for all you have taught me.


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