New Case Study–Virtual Operations Support Team: Trial by Fire

Post by: Kim Stephens

Image by OregonDOT

Lisa Ann St. Denis, Leysia Palen, and Amanda Hughes all of the University of Colorado’s Project EPIC have recently released a new case study of the use of a Virtual Operations Support Team or (VOST). The VOST was described in this guest post by Scott Reuter, one of the VOST members. The creator of the VOST concept, Jeff Phillips, defines it as an integration of “trusted agents”

…into Emergency Managment operations by creating a virtual team whose focus is to establish and monitor social media communication, manage communication channels with the public, and handle matters that can be executed remotely through digital means such as the management of donations or volunteers. In times of need, the support of a VOST can be enlisted to extend communication capacities and provide operational support.”

The study details the actions of the VOST during the Oregon Shadow Lake Fire in 2011 and discusses every aspect of their deployment: the team’s relationship with the requesting agency point of contact (which was the National Incident Management Organization PIO, Kris Eriksen); the tasks assigned to the team; the relationships in and amongst team members; team leadership; the processes and tools used to conduct, record and report their work back to the requestor; and the ability for volunteers to sustain their contributions.

It should be noted that this VOST was not created for the  purposes of responding to the fire. This is a team that was already formed and had worked together in real world instances (although somewhat smaller) on numerous occasions. The team members are also in almost daily contact with each other via social networks, even when they are not asked to work an incident.

This case study is quite timely. Emergency managers have started to realize the vital role social media can play in communicating with citizens in an emergency or disaster. Using social networks to disseminate information is not necessarily a huge stretch for most organizations (although some changes to traditional processes are necessary–such as releasing information more often). However,  the concept of monitoring, and then interacting, with citizens via social media–especially to gain situational awareness or even to gauge sentiment, is still quite unsettling for some. Most of the concerns revolve around simply the human-power required to monitor and aggregate the steady stream of information from the public, only some which is valuable.  Picking the needle of important info from the virtual haystack takes considerable effort.

I won’t rehash the exact nature of their work here–I recommend you take 15 minutes to read the 10 page report, but I do want to explore why they were successful. What stood out to me where five key ingredients that allowed this team to operate remotely–outside the walls of an Emergency Operation Center, and deliver a service that provided tangible support to not only the agency requesting their assistance, but almost more importantly, to the communities impacted by the fire. Five “key ingredients” were apparent (some of which I’ve augmented with my own observations from interacting with this group).

Key Ingredients:

1. Leadership. A virtual team cannot operate without a strong team leader that makes the success of the team his or her mission on an almost daily basis–even when the team is not operational. This is true of Jeff Phillips, not only the person who imagined the concept, but who works tirelessly to make it a reality. The authors of the study suggest that the team leader could be either a volunteer, such as Jeff, or a paid response agency staff member. He also served as the “cheerleader in chief” offering high praise to team members and constantly thanking them and exalting them for their efforts. Although Jeff did not often play the role decision-maker, without one, the team could devolve into disagreements with no way to resolve them.

2. Team building A group of volunteers that will be working towards a common goal need to understand and trust the other members. Team building for this VOST was done by the constant contact mentioned above which created an atmosphere of camaraderie by the members. In addition, membership is limited, which stoked a feeling of belonging as well as a sense of being a part of something bigger than their own individual efforts.

3. A clear mission: The VOST is designed specifically to be activated by, and work directly for, the ground incident/event management on specific tasks. The success demonstrated during the Shadow Lake Fire can be attributed to the team understanding exactly what they needed to accomplish and then given the latitude to complete the tasks at hand.

4. A virtual flagpole: The study mentions the social networking tools the team employed to complete their work during the three weeks they were active. Having a virtual location (in this case it was Skype) to record their work, as well as read what had transpired the shift before, seemed to be absolutely critical. This was especially true since members were geo-graphically dispersed in three different time zones.  Skype kept them all on the same page, both literally and figuratively.

5. Feedback The role of Kris Ericsen can not be underestimated. After requesting the services of the VOST she did not simply walk away. She interacted with the team on a daily basis to coordinate their efforts with her own, as well as to provide the vital information they needed to further their work. Furthermore she displayed trust, for example, by giving them details they couldn’t release to the public until a designated time, as well as gratitude for their efforts throughout the period they were activated.

I would be interested to hear from any organizations that are considering starting a virtual support team of their own. I believe some EMAs are weighing the option of using CERT members in this capacity. If you, or your local EMA falls in this category let me know.

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3 responses to “New Case Study–Virtual Operations Support Team: Trial by Fire

  1. Pingback: New Case Study–Virtual Operations Support Team: Trial by Fire | #UASI

  2. Pingback: How to Plan & Build a VOST for your Community or Organization « think disaster: a blog by Scott Reuter (@sct_r)

  3. Pingback: Using #SMEM Lessons Learned for Public Diplomacy | eVentures in Cyberland

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