I was recently invited to coach and evaluate the workings of a Joint Information Center (JIC) at a large-scale exercise in a magical Southern land where it’s always sunny, the food is beyond amazing and each sip of Cuban espresso is like the “quickening” scene from the first Highlander movie. Here’s what I observed about the information flow in the JIC during my three-day assignment.
First, the basics: as you may know, in the world of the Incident Command System (ICS), the Fact Gathering Specialist (FGS) is assigned by the JIC manager and reports to the Assistant Public Information Officer (APIO) for Information Gathering. The FGS, commonly known as the “runner” is responsible for gathering incident information for the JIC. That’s an overly simplified description. Anyone selected for this high-tempo position *should possess some public affairs and ICS experience, be able to work quickly, accomplish tasks with minimal initial direction and function efficiently in a high-stress mess of changing data. As ever, they must be assigned to this position based on training, experience, skills and ability, not by rank or employer. That’s one of the simple secrets of success of the ICS world.
Second, the details: the FGS should be in face-to-face and by-name contact with key positions in the Incident Command Post (ICP) on a routine basis and establish a good working relationship early on. Manage those expectations and make that introduction. (“Hello! I’m the Fact Gathering Specialist from the JIC, and I’ll be visiting you about once every thirty minutes looking for specific publicly releasable information and updates related to the response.”) The FGS will continuously obtain new information from (and provide updates to) various response cells in the Incident Command Post; data which is in turn fed to the APIO for Information Gathering, the Status Board Specialist, the JIC manager, the Media Relations Specialist, and other key positions in the JIC as needed. Those are only *two of your potential obstacles.
the FGS should be in face-to-face and by-name contact with key positions in the Incident Command Post (ICP) on a routine basis and establish a good working relationship early on.
Sometimes that introduction doesn’t happen. Sometimes the roles of the different cells aren’t clear to all the responders. Maybe the Situation Unit Leader (SITL) doesn’t know who this FGS person is, or why they keep coming back with more questions. I attended an exercise last year where the SITL was in a closed space with extremely limited access; repeated requests for information, initially begrudged, were eventually met with, “We’ll send you a copy of the briefing slide every day at 4. We don’t have time to answer all these questions.” Sometimes your JIC is located in a different building altogether from your ICP. Maybe someone involved in the initial planning stages thought it would be “just fine” to run the response via email, handle all media queries over the phone from headquarters and rely solely on the latest electronic platform to keep abreast of the situation. That’s okay. We all grow through our experiences and learn from our mistakes.
As an FGS, you must also understand that the media and public information needs are (unfortunately) not always the first concerns of the Situation Unit, or the Operations Section Chief, or those of a list of other components. That’s why forecasting is so important; knowing what needs to be asked of these (equally) busy people. Because when the rumors and requests start flowing in, the challenge is not only to track down those individual answers one at a time and post them to the status board, but to turn the problem on its head and start thinking like a reporter. Where is this going? What questions would you want to ask about these rumors? What would you want to know? This is anticipation of demand, and it ties back to the groundwork you need to put in before the Bad Thing happens: not only answering difficult questions, but knowing which difficult questions the media are likely to ask. (Hint: there are at least 77 of them.) Don’t just provide an answer; if you get more than one question on something start building a fact sheet on it. That’s why you have an APIO for Products and capable writers on staff.
you must also understand that the media and public information needs are (unfortunately) not always the first concerns of the Situation Unit, or the Operations Section Chief, or those of a list of other components.
For example: As your team begins monitoring hash tags on social media, they should also be tracking them. I don’t mean just logging them, but noting their frequency, noting the recurring themes, and looking for spikes. Measure their tone and tempo. Create a bar graph if you have to. Are the concerns about a specific issue growing? If the public is inventing negative hash tags, are those getting traction? Who’s repeating these negative tags and do those repeaters have a substantial audience or a relatively small one? In short, is that audience having their information demands met? If you’re getting questions about health concerns, would it not benefit you to put together an MSDS of the chemical properties of whatever substance you’re dealing with? The objective, as ever, is never to ignore or speak over your audience with what you want to tell them, but to overwhelm them with answers to all the questions they’re asking.
The hard lesson here is this: it’s unlikely you’ll have all the facts you need early on in your response. That applies to any cell of the ICP. It takes time to get those networks spooled up and working properly — typically a day, sometimes less. And again, in the absence of facts, don’t just put out “information”. This is where the first release is critical: stating what you know, what you don’t know, why you don’t know it, and where people can go for more information when you have it. Remember to provide a date time stamp with your early data: “As of 4 p.m. this afternoon, we have approximately 11 people accounted for, three reports of oiled birds and three crews combing the shore along the bay assessing the damage. We expect to have our next figures available by 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
There is only one side of the operation the public will see, and it benefits the response to make sure the messaging aligns with the efficiency and the work taking place behind the scenes.
The most important part of the FGS position isn’t *just running around getting updates for the aforementioned components of the JIC; it’s understanding how to forecast future needs based on the questions being asked now. That ties back to a forward-leaning Public Information Plan (as drafted by your PIO), which is based on command objectives and details your communication goals and strategies, which will then allow your JIC to move from a reactive position to a more proactive one, which means your staff doesn’t get burned out as fast. So on, so forth.
The response efforts may be rolling along like clockwork, but if your public-facing data doesn’t mesh or tell the same success story, it’s not doing you any favors. There is only one side of the operation the public will see, and it benefits the response to make sure the messaging aligns with the efficiency and the work taking place behind the scenes. That requires timely and verified information, answers to difficult questions, forecasting what’s next and staying two steps ahead of anticipation demand.