Every incident management team has an equilibrium--a balance, a state of mind--where maximum efficiency is reached, maximum effort is possible, and stress is maximally managed.
Think of it as spinning plate. If everything is in balance, the plate spins smoothly but once the balance is upset, wobbles ensue. Wobbles have a nasty tendency to quickly become more dramatic and are difficult to return to a balanced state. We've all probably been on wobbly incidents and it is not a good feeling. The stress increases and the incident issues do not receive the best thinking the IMT can bring to bear.
Every team member has a responsibility to maintain the equilibrium. That means you need to manage your own stress, watch out for stress adversely affecting other team members, and execute your duties in a way that lends stability to the team and provides confidence to your fellow team members.
Now, every team is different and in most cases, reaching that equilibrium as a team will mean working it out on more than one assignment and include a commitment by everyone to help all members reach a non-wobble. However, not everyone's contribution is the same. I think, along with the IC (obviously), Operations has a disproportionate responsibility and they must both pay attention to the team vibe and provide the stability needed. In most cases, Operations can accomplish this by doing one of the most critical non-operational Operations tasks: verbally painting a good picture.
When Operations describes the situation, the strategy, and the alternatives in a calm, thoughtful, well-reasoned, and descriptive way, it benefits the team greatly. A well-described briefing (be it a formal one in the morning, at C&G, or even an ad hoc group gathered up in the parking lot) gives the IMT the imagery and language needed to go and converse with others. Just as everyone on an incident is a Safety Officer, so is everyone a PIO in that each function has to communicate with people outside the IMT to get their job done. If Operations is good at describing the incident, other team members find it easier to relay the information and thus you have more consistency across the team as they talk to folks. If things are not clear or team members have to fill in blanks, the chance of mistakes and misunderstandings multiply greatly. This is key because it is easy for people under stress to misunderstand or attach their own meanings to conversations that are not well grounded. If you have team members and stakeholders coming at you with competing or confused versions of the situation and strategy, it's awfully tough to get everyone back together and aligned for the next action.
It also helps with team decision-making. If the IMT has a consistent and shared view of the incident, it is easier for decisions that affect multiple functions to be made. Then, when those decisions are made, it is easier to communicate the decisions and rationales both within the team and to the stakeholders. A good picture provides clarity and reduces confusion within the IMT.
When painting the picture, it is not only OK, but it is preferred for Operations to be uncertain on aspects of the incident that are uncertain. IMTs are in the business of dealing with ambiguity so there is no need to paper over difficulties in the hopes of calming everyone. However, Operations must be certain in their uncertainty. In other words, be honest and clearly share what you don't know as well as the plan to figure it out. If you are wishy-washy or exhibit signs of being overwhelmed, you just increased the wobble. Don't hurry.
The unknown is often the key part of any incident conversation and while it may seem to go against common sense, acknowledging uncertainty is what gives a speaker credibility in the incident world. People know there is a difficult situation and they want to know that you recognize the difficulty and are willing to share it. If you try to be more certain than they intuitively recognize the situation allows, you instantly lose credibility. And if the team is repeating those thoughts, they will lose trust too. With trust lost among the stakeholders and within the team, wobbles commence.
(Speaking as just a PIO, I'd much rather talk to the media and public about uncertainty than be certain about something that turns out later to not be such a sure thing. It's much easier to say the incident turned out better than expected and damn near impossible to effectively discuss something that turned out worse than we initially communicated.)
For Ops folks, I offer similar advice as to what I tell PIOs: be honest, be true to yourself, and practice. Pay attention to the team dynamic. If it seems wobbly, paint the picture with detail. Remember what John Dewey said:
A problem well put is half solved.
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.