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We Need a Virtual Toilet Plunger

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This afternoon, the HELP Foundation, a non-profit disaster planning and management volunteer organization posted an intriguing Twitter question to one of my #SMEM colleagues, Jeff Phillips

My knee-jerk response is….wait for it…a toilet plunger.

Yep, you read me right.  Now, you are likely wondering “what the heck?”  Stay with me a minute while I explain.

Everyone has had to deal with a plugged toilet at one time or another.  As a father of three, I was really  good at fixing them. Maybe I ‘m just warped, but the analogy of a plugged toilet and the efforts to integrate SM into the ICS process seem too obvious to me.  How so?

  • Typically, toilets get plugged for one or more of the following reasons;
    • Not enough available water,
    • Too much material,
    • Trying to flush stuff that doesn’t belong
    • Broken flushing mechanism
    • Inadequate training

Now, what really sucks is when you encounter this situation after you have innocently “gone about your business”. You flush, and “oh, oh” up comes the water, overflowing the bowl and making a mess that spreads everywhere.  If you are lucky, the bowl won’t overflow allowing you the opportunity to make a silent getaway for someone else to discover and deal with (don’t tell me you haven’t done it either!) Now, do you see where I am going with this?

I submit to you that there are a bunch of plugged ICS toilets out there.  First, many agencies do not have the internal resources, motivation and/or political will (the water) to embrace SM in ways the public now demands.   We need to continue to help others “fill their tanks”, gaining the knowledge to realize the importance of using these tools in crisis response.  Craig Fugate, the head FEMA guy, continues to champion the use of SM in all phases of emergency management.  He is keeping the SM “tank” full as it relates to emergency management activities.  But, I have not seen a parallel champion in the ICS realm at the federal level .  Maybe Craig can do both.  But, if so, he needs to push harder on the ICS handle.

Second, an overwhelming amount of information and resources are floating around that can cause the unenlightened to simply block efforts to engage.  Blockage also occurs from bureaucracy – outdated, bloated and rigid policies, procedures and technological “plugs”, delaying or prohibiting SM advocates from engaging.

Third, SM is not the answer for everything. and we can’t dump it alone into the bowl. In our efforts to champion SM for use in the ICS and the related planning process we must frame our strategy and tactics to include using ALL appropriate tools and tactics to deliver the message as intended.  There may be times where the use of SM tools and related technologies won’t be appropriate or effective, especially in the information dissemination arena.  Incident Commanders and PIO’s must be even more strategic these days in deciding how best to deliver a message, and even more importantly listen to what people think of the delivered message.

Fourth, you can’t deliver effective messages if your ICS mechanism is broken.  In other words, the Incident Commander and Public Information Officer MUST clearly understand the “new normal” as it relates to communicating with the public through the media, and the importance of listening and public engagement. Most importantly, they must accept and adopt tactics that enable FAST information sharing and rumor management during the heat of battle.

Finally, one of the biggest blockages in the ICS SM information toilet is lack of training. FEMA is supporting creation of  new courses designed to enlighten and introduce ICS types to SM concepts and tools that could-and should – be integrated into emergency response plans and in-house training efforts.  A recent pilot course on use of social media tools in natural disaster response was conducted by the National Disaster Preparedness Training Center/University of Hawai’i in Astoria, Oregon.  Judging by the amount of Twitter traffic originating in the class, I hope this pilot will be finalized and offered again soon.  We desperately need it.

OK, getting back to the Help Foundation’s original question, I suspect they are simply chumming for ideas to help them build the perfect platform, strategies and tools to improve the integration of SM into ICS.  But, I’m not cerebral enough to come up with a really esoteric answer.

Gotta run, natures calling….

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Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.thehelpfoundation.org Sara G.

    Thank you for this hilarious analogy to the issues of social media in emergency management! You have effectively “flushed out” some of the biggest issues with SMEM. It’s not just about understanding the technology involved, it’s about adapting how we do things to embrace this streamlined method of communication. I would have to say that the issue that concerns me the most is the 3rd issue you brought up. Some folks are intent on throwing everything into this and forgetting that there are other more traditional methods for information dissemination that are much more effective in some situations.

    Like every new tool that comes out for use in Emergency Management, there is a time frame where everyone is kicking the tires and playing around with it, not completely sure if it’s something they really want to invest in. The difference between what we are used to and what we are seeing with social media is: we aren’t setting the trend, the public is. Instead of emergency managers being the innovators in the equation and teaching the public how to do something; emergency managers are clamoring to keep up.

    And as for your suspicion, you were close. We were looking highlight that there is no silver bullet to using social media in emergency management, we have to remain flexible and use this tool as part of our overall approach to responding.

    Thanks for keeping this conversation interesting!
    The HELP Foundation

    • http://gravatar.com/chiefb2 chiefb2

      LOL! Thanks for the clarification Sara, and thanks for the inspirational tweet that put fingers to the keyboard. Your comments are right on!

  • http://acertyourself.wordpress.com Mark

    Another problem is that a lot of people really do not use (have) those tools. I have a feeling that with certain age groups if you get them to read their emails that would be a big help. I know that I do not own (yet) a phone that would allow me to keep up with most SM in an emergency.

    And you are right, training and a new mind set for ICS is a must before a change like this will work. I can hardly wait to see the Feds. manuel on protocol for Tweeting during a chemical spill. The IPO’s qualification would certainly have to be altered. And Sarah is right about Uncle Sam not calling the shots, will “they” really support something they do not control?

    A final thought for it to fit into ICS who is going to write the manuel on what symbols and abbreviations will b used during n emrgnc :) ?

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.