How to Build a City Joint Information System

“Whoa … we DID NOT see that one coming.”

Brandon and I don’t talk a whole about it on the blog but I think most readers know we have “day jobs” providing, “crisis communication strategies to the energy, maritime and government sectors that can be implemented immediately for response to any critical incident, that are compliant with any government-led response, and that are compatible with any government or industry-led operation.” [Yes, I pulled that directly from our marketing materials]

There’s a lot of gratification in working with our government clients – I think because our background is government and the nature of the support we provide to government clients is an extension of the service we provided to the public as federal Public Information Officers.

We completed a project last year with our “shipmates” over at Emergency Management Services International (EMSI) for just such a client … a city (name withheld to protect the innocent) whose citizens have been contending with the aftermath of back-to-back-to-back Nor’easters in recent weeks.

If you’re an emergency manager or city-level PIO, I suspect the challenges our client faced are going to sound very familiar, so I think you might find what we did of some interest. What follows is a snapshot of what the project looked like.

BACKGROUND: In recent years the city we worked with has managed several critical incidents directly impacting its citizens and other stakeholders. From domestic terrorism to massive power outages to debilitating winter storms, a key takeaway for city planners had been how getting clear, consistent information to people when bad things happened had a direct correlation to the city’s ability to quickly return to normal operations. To that end, planners asked us to help them develop a prescriptive system for coordinating and integrating public information activities among the multitude of city offices and departments. A system that would also allow city PIOs to plug into state and federal operations, when necessary.

PRIMARY CHALLENGES:

  • During past events, critical incident information was not making its way equally up and down the chain, nor laterally among multiple PIOs throughout the city agencies and offices.
  • There were inconsistencies in the type, accuracy, alignment and coordination of information sought and collected by department PIOs, Emergency Managers and the Mayor’s office.
  • This lack of flow and the inconsistencies affected the Mayor’s ability to provide the coordinated, integrated public information operations to impacted citizens, businesses and other stakeholders, which adversely impacted the city’s ability to return to normal operations.

PROPOSED SOLUTION:

  1. Develop a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) as an annex to existing emergency plans, which outlined a system for the quick gathering and dissemination of consistent, accurate information to stakeholders during a critical incident or event.
  2. Improve the maintenance of a common operating picture and situational awareness among city departments by simplifying the processes used to exchange and share information.
  3. Add prescriptive guidance to existing plans that outlined the development of consistent messaging across all departments during response and recovery phases, and over the long-term.

APPROACH:

  1. Use the National Response Team Joint Information Center Model as a baseline document to ensure the system would reflect state and federal doctrine and easily plug into response operations as they expand to those levels.
  2. Develop message coordination tools designed to address the city’s specific message coordination challenges.
  3. Build a social media Assistant PIO function not in the current NRT JIC model.
  4. Deliver two training workshops, two guided table-top exercises, and an after action report using Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) design and evaluation principles.
  5. Conduct on site coaching to guide implementation during real world city-planned events.

RESULTS:

  • The joint information SOP was implemented to support operations for a 5-day international tall ship event expected to draw millions of visitors.
  • The JIC was staffed by PIOs from 10 agencies at the local, state and federal level, and managed by the City’s Office of Emergency Management PIO.
  • Federal PIOs recognized the framework and were able to seamlessly plug into the operation.
  • PIOs who weren’t familiar with the plan were able to easily plug into operations using the SOP Annex job aids and position checklists.
  • Public safety messaging about inclement weather was developed by JIC staff and approved by city, state and federal incident commanders before it was needed.
  • Public information about the delay of the tall ship parade was developed, approved and disseminated within 10 minutes of the decision to delay.

To the credit of the city planners, they insisted on a crawl-walk-run approach to implementing the plan. Realistically we probably got them to the fast walk or maybe even slow trot stage but they weren’t necessarily running by the time the job was done. Nevertheless, they are a lot farther along than many of their counter parts in other metropolitan areas and I personally would put any of the city PIOs we trained up against the best of our colleagues.

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