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Modern, Agile and Responsive: A Fresh Look at Disaster Response and Communications

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In the first installment of our 3-part blog series on the future of emergency management, Francisco Sanchez, Jr., Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management, has joined us as a guest blogger to discuss how the field of emergency management has changed and how you can take steps to keep up with accelerating technology and worsening disasters. To hear more from Francisco about the changing space of disaster response, join us on December 11th at 2 PM ET for The Future of Emergency Management: Exploring How Technology Will Impact Public Safety.

Emergency management is constantly changing and adapting. Disasters we once thought impossible are now commonplace. How we respond to a disaster and how we communicate during these emergencies is the difference between success or failure.  Both of these elements in the disaster space require nimbleness, agility and a fresh look that is willing to question how we have done things in the past.

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) creates a common operating structure across all levels of government for disaster response. Both are systems that rely heavily on a top-down, hierarchical approach, which can hinder the success of disaster response. As disasters get larger and more frequent, we need to be more agile and empower those closer to the field.  While a hierarchical organization provides structure, it limits the agile and adaptive connection needed between different organizations in a rapidly changing disaster.

The hierarchical approach can be outdated for today’s world and NIMS/ICS could benefit greatly from flattening the organizational structure and allowing a more networked organization. A networked structure could:

  • Transfer information more easily and allow for key time-sensitive decisions at the tactical level
  • Empower individuals closest to the issue to make decisions to reduce the chance of time-sensitive information changing before a decision could be made
  • Connect important decision makers from all organizations to increase communication across organizational boundaries
  • Enable individuals from different organizations to establish relationships and build trust prior to emergencies and disasters

A networked approach would improve communication, which is critical in disasters. Communication needs quick and flexible pathways, and relies on trust. The Joint Information Center (JIC) is a successful example of how a network approach can function within an ICS structure. For the JIC to serve this dynamic communication function, we have to improve our ability to automate processes, integrate platforms and incorporate social science.

Partner agencies know how to provide information to the JIC and, in turn, we know that the information is reliable so we have unified messaging with “one voice.” We remove the middleman to create a trusted, faster information source for the public. Pushing information to the public can be time consuming. We have begun to automate this process by using mass notification systems and automated social media tools. Pressing send once, or automating messages, saves precious time and resources in a disaster. We use social science to tweak the message to meet each medium. A tweet can travel fast, but the characters must communicate the most important information. Users must opt-in for alerts, but they can choose how they want to receive them (email, text, voice).

The need for a networked approach, both in the response itself and how we communicate, has never been greater in emergency management. The public expects this and we must constantly strive to meet that need.

Want to hear more? Francisco will be speaking more on the topic of technology and emergency management during our upcoming webinar on December 11th at 2 PM ET, The Future of Emergency Management: Exploring How Technology Will Impact Public Safety.