As our incidents trend towards greater complexity, there is a call for incident management teams to be more strategic in their approach across all functions. When strategy comes up, we in the wildfire world have a saying that has been repeated thousands of times: "Fly at 30,000 feet." This always seemed a little off to me because the expected action is that you look down from 30,000 feet so you can see the entire incident and thus you're able to make better decisions. Many times in my career while working towards the Lead PIO position on an IMT, I was told to fly that high but I was never told what I should be looking for from that height. I finally realized that 30,000 feet is a refuge we (including me more than a few times) seek when we know what needs to be done but can't describe it very well. The conversation always plays out this way: the experienced hand is working with a novice, hits a communications roadblock, and the only out is to implore the less experienced person to fly high. Meanwhile, the recipient of this wisdom is looking a little perplexed and nods with an understanding that is not wholly there.
After going through our training process and being beat up on many incidents, I finally figured out that the key to flying at 30,000 feet is to not only look down, but to also look out in both time and space. Where are we headed and when will we get there? Where time and space intersect, strategic thinking is demanded.
In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.
Webster has six definitions for strategy and the four that relate most to what we do start out as follows:
“... in moments of crisis our thoughts do not run consecutively but rather sweep over us in waves of intuition and experience.” ― John le Carré
One of the responsibilities we all have in a learning organization is to share our knowledge. To that end, let's talk specifically about PIO strategy on an incident. One caveat: I can only discuss how I approach an incident while others may have their own ways. That is for the best as the PIOs coming up will face increasing complexities and should pick and choose the best approaches and then refine them through their own experiences. I can tell you everything I convey in this post was learned in part because of failures. Now, I know what to look for. I also know the next incident may very well illuminate some current blind spot and create a tough-learned addition to the list.
Here are the five things I always think about when developing a PIO strategy to include messaging, staffing, reach, and the vicissitudes of complex incidents:
When arriving on an incident, my first thoughts turn to the strategy or strategies for addressing the incident as developed by the agency administrator(s), the incident commander, and our Operations folks. If there are multiple strategies like on a wildfire where there might be full suppression, point protection, and monitoring, your top-level messaging will be difficult. You may have to draw distinctions between strategies that do not fit well with each other and messages may vary depending on where the public is--physically and emotionally--in relation to the incident strategy being implemented. Also, at various stages of the incident, strategies may rise and fall in importance or urgency. Explaining how disparate approaches like full suppression and MIST tactics fit on the same fire demands clear, consistent, and frequent messaging across all platforms to avoid confusion and the appearance of incompetence.
Many teams have now added a strategic planning meeting to their daily schedule and there should always be PIO representation at such meetings. On my Pacific Northwest team, it was called the 24/48/72. The goal of such a meeting is to make sure Operations is validating the current actions and communicating the expected trajectory of the incident, to ensure Logistics can meet the operational requirements within the proposed time frames, and to align the rest of the functions with the expected actions. In some cases, there is operational uncertainty surrounding weather or fire behavior or resource availability which will obviously affect the other functions too. There may also be variables or action points that will drive the incident one way or another. As a Lead PIO responsible for both external messaging and managing the information organization, it is critical to understand the potentialities and build them into your thinking.
The next place I look is the agencies involved. Do they have the same definition of incident strategies as the IMT? Do they have constituencies that have different ideas about what we are trying to do? If so, the top-level messaging must not only address the incident strategies, but also finesse the differences so that we bring those groups closer to the idea of our incident strategy. You may also have to look at cooperators, elected officials, and those that have community influence to see if there is a similar dynamic. If so, continue to work on your public messaging but also start conversations with the individuals in those groups and use your teammates (especially the IC and Liaison Officer) to help them see the rationale for the IMT's actions.
For instance, you may have an agency that defines full suppression as minimal acres or a state senator who does not realize fuel conditions have changed since he was a young man or a community who only knows the fire that happened years ago or the power company who thinks burnouts are some risky "backfire" whimsies undertaken without planning or safety in mind. The best way to get those folks to accept an approach that may seem counter-intuitive to their experiences or thinking is to convey the info in a calm and competent manner while following up with success on the ground. That takes a team effort and if you do have this situation, it is essential that it is conveyed to the IC and the rest of the C&G so everyone knows the potential pitfalls when they are representing the team in the many discussions that take place during an incident. Problems are inevitable when you assume your organizational/cultural meaning of a word or term is in agreement with others outside your experience.
We propose to consider first the single elements of our subject, then each branch of part, and, last of all, the whole in all its relations-therefore to advance from the simple to the complex. But it is necessary for us to commence with a glance at the nature of the whole, because it is particularly necessary that in the consideration of any of the parts their relation to the whole be kept constantly in view.
The incident strategies and agency influencers will define your top-level messages, while the human geography of the incident will suggest the size and scope of the Information organization. Simply, where do you need to go to make physical contact with those most directly affected by the incident? Communities, trap lines, evacuation centers, information stations, bulletin boards, and more go into the consideration of how many PIOs are needed to cover all the ground. Information gathered from the public will also help refine your top-level messaging and point to other messages that are important to the public.
Safety also comes into play. When I started way back when, it was not unusual to have single PIOs driving long trap lines or parked at an information station like a campground or post office for hours. Given the increased awareness of fatigue and driving dangers, not to mention the increased risk of dealing with members of the public who are under stress from the incident, it seems foolish to me to not pair up PIOs and ensure they have reliable and redundant communications. If there is a PIO shortage, safety may influence what you are able to accomplish so you have to be strategic in how you deploy PIOs. That's another good discussion to have with the agency administrator and your IC, even if it is just to explain why something is not happening. (In those conversations, don't be pleading. Plainly state the problem, offer your solution, and invite them to make recommendations.)
You also have to pay attention to what's going on around you, as evidenced by a choice I once had to make. A few years ago, my team was managing a complex in Washington state when we were at National PL5. We had three or four small to medium fires that were causing us some issues and the forecast called for a major dry lightning bust accompanied by winds across the Northwest. It was expected that the lightning would start 30 or more large fires in Oregon and Washington and cause our fires to grow rapidly. On top of that, one of our fires was close to a community and the predicted winds were set to push it in that direction, setting up a large burnout operation. I initially wrote up a resource order for additional PIOs to add to our forces in the community under threat as well as a few extra for the anticipated activity on the other fires. The problem is that the winds had not arrived yet so I might be ordering people that would not be needed. However, if I waited to put the order in after it became clear they were needed, I'd probably be competing with newly-assigned IMTs set to take on the 30 other large fires that just started and thus be a low priority. So what to do?
I ended up doubling the order. The rationale was that I could get PIO resources headed to my incident and then be able to quickly reassign them to new fires that needed immediate staffing. Instead of waiting 2-3 days for PIOs to arrive, the folks I ordered would be arriving about the time the new IMTs were taking command of the new fires. I ran the proposal by other PIO Leads across the NW teams and the Regional Office and was only met with encouragement. The PIOs on the other teams were worried they would not be able to fill many orders if they all put them in at the same time and the Regional Office echoed those concerns. I also talked to my IC and our Ordering group. Everyone knew what was happening and understood the reasons. As it turned out, the weather system petered out about midway through Oregon and never reached our part of Washington. There was still enough new activity to find all of the ordered PIOs immediate work and everything worked out well on our complex of fires. As a group, we were able to take a strategic view of the situation and use the existing infrastructure in a slightly novel way to anticipate the demands.
Strategy is all very well, but it pays to give thought from time to time to the results.--Winston Churchill
After understanding the strategy, the partners, and building your information organization to meet the needs of those affected by the incident, the next step is to look at who outside the immediate area is affected by or interested in the incident. If you have a fire in a popular ski area or in an iconic national park, or on , say, the Pacific Crest Trail, you have an incident that goes beyond who you can see and who you can physically reach. You also have the family and friends of responders who follow things closely and ask frequent questions.
In the olden days, this problem would be addressed by PIOs manning a phone bank all day. Now, we don't get as many phone calls but woe be the PIO shop that doesn't have a good social media plan. Such a plan identifies the primary groups and online communities you need to reach and the messages you will use to reach them. Are your social media products tailored to those audiences? You also need to recognize that many of the folks you will personally interact with, like media and officials, will also be tied into your online products. One strategic necessity is to develop options in case a system goes down. Do you have enough redundancy to meet the needs? Another consideration is what can you do if a portion of your audience does not have access or, in some cases where fire has hit communities, the electricity? When faced with those local problems, remember that everything we do on social media is information that can be shared through other means if needed.
“He listened to their opinions, stated his own, and supported them with reasons; and from his being constantly occupied with such meditations, it resulted, that when in command no complication could ever present itself with which he was not prepared to deal.” ― Niccolò Machiavelli
One of the more difficult tasks to do on an incident is the What If, as it takes time and energy to think through a bunch of contingencies. Even so, it is critical that the Lead PIO work through the likely possibilities. What if we have to close the entrance to the national park? Well, that will change the messaging, demand additional PIOs, and we'll have to figure out how to communicate with the local business owners who will be losing substantial sums. What if we get fire on the interstate? How will we handle the evacuation of a community and reach the numerous shelters that would be set up? What if the President wants to come to our incident? Again, we just need to think through the likely possibilities, which will usually be informed through conversations with our teammates in those strategic planning meetings. No need to get wrapped around the axle about a fire jumping the Grand Canyon during a major earthquake because aliens are landing on the North Rim.
Of course, there is a difference between coming up with a strategic plan and acting strategically when that plan bumps into the reality of a crisis. The best path to thinking and acting strategically during a major crisis is gaining enough experience to be comfortable in a major crisis. That is a long journey and you never quite reach the destination.
(If you read this far and S-520 is in your future, you may want to think through your version of this post. Just saying.)
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2018, All rights reserved. Academic use approved with notification and attribution.
Occasional thoughts on incident response, crisis communications, wildland fire, and other topics.
Docendo disco, scribendo cogito.
Copyright © Jim Whittington, 2019.