Putting the “I see!” in ICS for Communicators

Wow. 2015 sure happened, didn’t it? In the spirit of this season of giving, Paul and I are counting down (and re-sharing, re-posting, re-tweeting, re-facebooking, etc., etc.) our Top 10 Most Read Pieces (look at all those caps!) from this year of the Crisis Communicator blog. We’re continuously blown away by how many people visit the blog, and we thank you for reading, sharing what we’ve written and, most importantly, coming back for more!

Coming in at #10 is this little ditty I wrote in July about how professional communicators can best integrate into an Incident Command System-managed organization during a crisis. Don’t worry – the only “dad joke” is in the headline. Enjoy!

~brandon

HOUMA, La. -- Members of the unified response for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill listen to the command members give an update at the unified command center in Houma, La. April, 25, 2010. The command is made up of representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard, BP, the Marine Spill Response Corporation, National Response Corporation, National Oceananic and Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana Department Fish and Wildlife along with local, state and federal agencies. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

HOUMA, La. — Members of the unified response for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill listen to the command members give an update at the unified command center in Houma, La. April, 25, 2010. The command is made up of representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard, BP, the Marine Spill Response Corporation, National Response Corporation, National Oceananic and Atmospheric Administration, Louisiana Department Fish and Wildlife along with local, state and federal agencies. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephen Lehmann.

It’s 4th and goal, you’ve got the ball, there’s 5 seconds left in the game and your team is down by three. The coach sends you in from the sidelines with the final play of the game, confident that it’ll be a success and lead to victory. You get to the huddle, but decide you have a better play than the coach’s: “Ok, guys. They’ve got the shift on to the right and the infielders are playing the edge of the outfield grass. I’m gonna bunt down the third base line and….”

Enough of that manufactured mixed metaphor. You get the point. If there was a Jeopardy answer here it would be, “What are things that don’t work?” or, “What is a good way to lose a game?”

If you’re a private sector communicator and find yourself reporting to an incident command post for any crisis in the U.S., the rules of the “game” include using the Incident Command System to manage all aspects of the response.

I’ve worked at many command posts throughout the years and, unfortunately, have seen many people push back at using ICS. Plain and simple: when this happens, at best, you have a loose cog in the machine and it’s inefficient; at worst, the organization fails at some (or all!) of the tasks at hand. Result? The opposite of what you want to happen happens.

If you’re a private sector communicator about to embark on an incident command post adventure in the U.S., debating whether or not to use ICS is about as productive and meaningful as debating the color of oranges (SPOILER ALERT: you will and they’re orange). ICS is the federally-mandated incident response management tool used by city, county, state and federal agency personnel (i.e., the people who establish, operate and demobilize incident command posts, or the people who are members of incident management teams tasked with mitigating a crisis).

Fear not, I’m here to help! If you’re unfamiliar with the system, that’s OK. If you’re not sold on the system, that’s OK, too. Here are a few things to consider about ICS and the environments where it’s used:

  • Good news up-front: It works.
  • Even better news: It’s flexible, purposely designed (know matter how thick the field guides are or how in-depth the training is) to accept creative approaches for getting the job done. In other words, all the experience and ideas you bring to the table can be easily integrated into the management framework.
  • In crisis communication settings, the systematic approach minimizes duplication of effort and helps ensure that important tasks are completed.
  • It provides a common operating language that transcends the organizations involved in incident response, designed to prevent confusion of terms.
  • ICS field guides and job aids are ubiquitous at incident responses – i.e., you won’t be lost if you’re new to the system.
  • The system covers every possible resource needed to mitigate crisis, and spells out how they are acquired, paid for, staged, operated and demobilized. Everything from people with specific skill sets to high tech field equipment, for any kind of incident of any size.
  • You’re not at your usual job, with your usual boss or usual duties, when you’re collaborating with others as part of an incident response organization. You’re part of a team with simple end goals: get the job done right and go home. Every person’s contribution plays a part in achieving this.

Your first foray into command post life can be intimidating, whether it’s with a team of 20 or 2,000. Preparation and practice are the keys to being prepared for success:

  • Take an intro to ICS course. They’re free and online, require minimal time commitment and de-mystify everything from the alphabet soup of acronyms to the reasons why the system is used.
  • Take crisis communication-specific ICS courses. Also, free and online with minimal time commitment.
  • Familiarize yourself with a collaborative communication system. This one’s my favorite (because it has worked time and again at real crisis incidents).
  • Use what you’ve learned at practice – if you have the opportunity to participate in tabletop or full-scale exercises with any level of government organizations, do so! You may not be able to fill a player role, but some exercise programs offer pre-drill training and/or observer opportunities.
  • If you’re thrust into a position at an incident command post, make sure you’re playing by the rules for the right game! You don’t need a banker when you’re playing euchre, and there’s no bunting in football. I mean, you can try to play outside the rules for any given game – let me know how that works out for you.
  • Being skeptical of the system is fine – keeping an open mind and checking your ego at the door in simulated or actual incident response situations could offer you the opportunity to be pleasantly surprised at how well it works. Changing our minds about something when we receive new information is a good idea in general.

OK. Go get ’em, Tiger!

Talk to me, Goose.

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