Social Media/Web 2.0 and NIMS

A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in i...

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Guest Post By: Hal Grieb, Emergency Manager from Plano, Texas

I recently had the opportunity to speak on the impact of social media and web 2.0 on National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) and more importantly the command and management component of NIMS. After speaking I thought it could benefit a larger audience by writing a little on my thoughts and interpretation of its impact. As a quick background, I have been ensuring NIMS compliance for over 3 years in the agencies I have worked for and also have been teaching and implementing NIMS for just as long. I also want to discern the separation of NIMS and Incident Command Systems (ICS), as they are in fact, not the same thing. I also realize that the NIMS is by no means perfect and could use some updates. Prior to my civilian job I was in the Army National Guard for 10 years and quickly embraced ICS due to the similarities with the military command and control guidelines that help any soldier be placed into any situation and have some base level of operating in new circumstances. To me, the NIMS training and implementation guidance helps form a pseudo public safety basic training. In essence it facilitates governments and responders ranging from fire to finance be placed into any disaster and have some sort of basic framework and jargon to work together in. I wish to show how NIMS is not the problem; neither is ICS, Joint Information Systems, or Multi Agency Coordination Systems.

Before we get lost in NIMS; definitions need to be stated. Social Media and Web 2.0 have been defined in multiple ways, so I will do my best to explain my view. Social Media sites are specific community driven sites that allow a user (you and I) to create an online persona or profile in order to connect and communicate back and forth with other users. Examples include Facebook, twitter, MySpace, etc. Web 2.0 applications are slightly different. While on Web 2.0 applications you can still connect with other users after creating a profile, they are primarily used for and more specific purpose. Examples include YouTube (which allow users to share videos), picassa (a site for picture uploading and editing), GeoChat a tool for group communications based on SMS, email, Twitter, and QR codes (which with a free download on your smart phone allows you to obtain instant answers and links using a smart phone camera.)

In addition to understanding the definitions of new technologies, we must also remember historical precedents that gave way to huge dissent in their first stages of adoption. When live television feeds came out, responders had to begin adapting the way they created perimeters. When electronic mail was put into offices, offices policies and user roles need to be defined. This is important to note, no agencies needed to re-create their overall strategies or business models. They did have to change internal use policies and procedures on the issues these technologies had for their specific areas. Social Media and other web 2.0 applications are simply tools in themselves; by no means are they a new, one size fit all model of communication. They merely augment the systems and tools agencies currently have in place.

In today’s modern response, could you imagine any response to an incident or major event that didn’t utilize live camera feeds from a command post or even the media? How effective would today’s government function without electronic mail even without a disaster or major event? Yes, I do realize with all the great benefits of technology there are also drawbacks. However, no side of the technology argument is 100% correct. When addressing implementation of any technology we must understand the downside of our side and the upside of the opposite. By leveraging all viewpoints maturely we can then allow a resolution of social media and web 2.0 tensions, albeit not the solution to either sides problems.

So does this fit into NIMS? First, understand that for any agency or government that utilizes federal homeland security funds, NIMS became their framework on February 28, 2003 when Homeland Security Presidential Directive -5 was signed by President George W. Bush. The NIMS, while not at all perfect, encourages agencies to embrace and implement new technologies. The NIMS document clearly states in the Ongoing Management and Maintenance Component under Supporting Technologies, “Ongoing development of science and technology is integral to the continual improvement and refinement of NIMS. NIMS leverages science and technology to improve capabilities and lower costs”. Social Media and Web 2.0 application are these very types of technologies. Clearly demonstrating the argument that, by not using social media or web 2.0, an agency or jurisdiction could not be correctly implementing the NIMS and not in compliance!

In an agencies implementation of social media, many say ICS, JIS, and MACS guidance needs to be re-written to explicitly state social media’s usage on an incident. My first argument harkens back to my earlier remarks on email and live tv feeds. These tools are not explicitly stated in the guidance, so what makes social media and web 2.0 applications special? Often the true problem is the incident commander or Public information officer limiting the use of new technologies due to slow press release policies or lack of trust, or education on them. This demonstrates not the inefficiencies of the ICS, JIS, or MACS guidance more the specific agency or people that influence the tactical policies to support the guidance. Re-writing a federal document does not make the people that fall under it framework any more educated or accepting of its use. Time, instruction and changes of specific agency procedures make social media work in incident command.

Furthermore, social media and web 2.0 is not specific to just the “push” of information out to the public, it is also imperative agencies listen or facilitate the “pull” information effectively. The PIO does this to ensure message clarity and rumor control. In addition, the IC needs to understand the pull to ensure the safety of his incident. Incident commanders have the ability to employ multiple ICS tools to facilitate this. Remember, social media allows public safety agencies to see and gather information and intelligence (info/intell) like never before. But we have also seen numerous incidents where by-standers take pictures of police snipers, mobile command posts, and other public safety resources.

ICS has flexible guidance that allows information and intelligence pulled in via multiple positions. The incident command can either pull information and intelligence themselves, designate a person as Info/Intell command staff officer, create a Info/Intell General Staff Branch, create a position within the Planning Section, or for more tactical decision information put a unit directly under the incident’s operations section. The truth is, there is room in ICS, JIS, and MACS for a specific unit, person, or function to utilize social media and other web 2.0 tools. Even still, there are enormous benefits for all personnel in any of the aforementioned positions to have some sort of basic understanding of the tools they have at their disposal even when not tasked with solely using them.

As time goes on and there are more case use examples availiable, public safety agencies will soon begin to amend their strategies and tactics to include new tools such as social media and other web 2.0 applications. This is the beauty of the NIMS document; it gives us only broad guidance to ensure that agencies do not stay still and  strive to define how they can answer the the broad goals of integrating not only new disciplines and personnel into all hazards efforts, but also new internal and external processes, tools, and technology as well.

Post Script: This post is also listed on the First Responders Communities of Practice page, where a few people have already commented. Request a registration and join in the debate.

One response to “Social Media/Web 2.0 and NIMS

  1. Pingback: Social Media in Disaster Response…System or Delegation Issue? | Brandon Greenberg

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