Can we use slack for civil contingencies chat?

Phil Rumens was looking for examples of using Slack for cross-agency team chat.

Its sparked a nice discussion including examples of the use of WhatsApp and Microsoft Lync  I’m also familiar with the use of Skype by VOST teams and Skype (and more recently Slack) by The Standby Task Force.

Why do we need anything?

 

First. Let’s talk about the problem.

There is a beautifully simple and flexible framework across the UK for dealing with emergencies (everything from floods to terrorism to zombie-apocalypse). Essentially all the bits of the public sector are required to work together in a series of interlocking committees. It works really very well.

And for many people it means spending a lot of an emergency on a phone or glued to email.

As a comms professional in local government (not right now, but often) I have been one of those people. And as a geek I have always felt that there must be a better way.

Illustrate through analogy

Let’s take a hypothetical emergency: there’s a massive fire in a factory in a big city.

Clearly there will be a lot of firefighters at the scene, fighting the fire. There will also be some police officers. They’ll be setting up a cordon to make sure people don’t come into the factory. A crime may have been committed so the police will also want to make sure no-one walks off with crucial evidence. People may be injured so there will be paramedics and ambulances. They may have to evacuate surrounding areas in which case the local authority will be looking for places for people to stay temporarily. The Environment Agency will be there to help minimise pollution from the event. Other local authority staff might be called in to provide specialist advice on things like the structural integrity of the building.

You get the idea.

And that’s just the start. There’s the health service making sure people get treated and that the health of the general public is protected, what if a care home is affected, what about a school and so on…

This quickly involves a lot of people and a lot of organisations.

And from a comms point of view there’s a lot to keep on top of. The public need good, fast, information on what’s going on (and advice on what they should do). Journalists will have questions about what’s going on. Staff within organisations will want (and probably need) to know what’s going on.

And the managers of the people at the scene will be talking. They’ll be trying to work out what might happen next. What if the fire spreads? What if the wind shifts? Do we have enough fire tenders? Will we have to close roads to traffic and so on. And those people also need communications input.

Coordinate those cats

The good news is that, even in these straitened times, there should be quite a lot of comms people (or at least some) able to help between all the organisations involved. The bad news is that they will be in different parts of the country, probably dealing with lots of other things as well and they will have specialist knowledge of their organisations.

So as the situation evolves different people need to be consulted, need to be brought up to speed or to hand over their thoughts to people coming on shift.

And typically this involves emailing ever changing lists of people and sitting on telephone conferences. It typically leaves out organisations that have less direct involvement (even if that organisation might have valuable insight) and makes it very easy to lose track of where the situation has got to and where the comms messages stand.

If only there were a better way.

Well there is.

The situation I’ve just described is exactly the one faced by digital humanitarian groups like The Standby Task Force or VOST and they use Skype and Slack. Really successfully.

Chat

Text chat systems like this have some real advantages. When you come on shift you can read up the chat and quickly get updated not just on what’s happened but why some choices have been made. You can also leave links to latest documents and more structured updates in chatrooms for people to refer to. And you can talk in real time to the people who are online right then. Different chat rooms can focus on different aspects of the task to avoid overwhelming the main discussion. But people who are less involved in that area but are interested or might have things to contribute can monitor and chip in when necessary. In The Standby Task Force we can coordinate the work of hundreds of people in all timezones using Skype (or Slack) and Google Docs.

It’s not for us though

So why don’t we use these in civil contingencies in the UK?

Well (as the WhatsApp example shows, sometimes we do). I think there are several reasons:

  • insufficient clarity on security. In fact on Twitter my instant reaction was that Slack would be unsuitable for this use because of operational security, Matt Hogan (who frankly knows an awful lot more about this sort of thing than me) thought this probably isn’t a barrier. Someone must know for sure…
  • operational friction. Email and phone conferences are extremely flexible and use extremely widely understood protocols. You can ask for a phone number and an email address with absolute confidence that everyone will have one. Ask for a Skype handle and you may be disappointed. And even if people use Skype, will it get through the Firewall? Exercise Watermark in 2010 highlighted that technical issues like Agency A not being able to use the WiFi in Agency B’s headquarters were a significant problem. I am aware this continue to be a problem in 2016. How many agencies not being able to take part in the chatroom would it take before the whole thing falls over.
  • innate conservatism. Emergency planning isn’t an area that encourages risk taking. When I was trained in emergency control centre operation (a few years ago I confess) we were shown how to run a control centre on pens and paper. That’s sensible because pens and paper work in power cuts and don’t suffer from WiFi incompatibility. But most of the time there isn’t a power cut and there are much better tools.
  • the LRF problem. Planning for emergencies is tasked to a partnership at police force level called the Local Resilience Forum. Each LRF is different but it can be hard to get new ideas adopted by the partnership bodies and, even if they are, to get each partner to implement them. No-one is in charge. This leads to flexibility in emergency response and, often, inaction outside of the response phase.

Slack may not be the best solution. I mean I love it but really it is designed for teams, it is not so good, to my mind, in the more ad-hoc situation of an emerging multiagency response. Skype probably would be my favourite solution. I can see why people might use WhatsApp (and I have used it myself in an event management role) but it’s a bit to mobile device -specific for me.

What do we need?

What we could do with is:

  • some nice clear guidance on what you can and can’t do in terms of emergency management on, let’s say, Skype, Slack and WhatsApp
  • some nice clear advice on how to make it work “we suggest you set up a chat room for the comms team” type stuff. There’s plenty of experience out there. Maybe I’ll write up how it works for us at the Standby Task Force.
  • a couple of LRFs to pilot it to reassure everyone else it’s a good plan
Any volunteers?