More oil spill drill lessons

June 27, 2008

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— the outdated notion of the physical JIC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.

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