Backups

A series of unexpected events have led to me having to reinstall the blog.

Of course, being a resilience specialist, I take regular backups.

Of course…

What a good Local Resilience Forum does around communicating with the public

1964 - B-52 checklist

From last month

I’m a bit late with my list of recommended summer reading and, it turns out, there’s only one book on it.

The role of Local Resilience Forums: A reference document by the Cabinet Office

Never going to be a best seller but still a page turner.

If you’ve got this far you probably know what an LRF is. Just in case, the LRF is the partnership organisations in England and Wales are required to join (there’s a similar thing in Scotland called SCG). The role of an LRF is codified in law and regulation but there is still a lot of confusion within organisations. LRFs have no duties placed upon them, all the duties sit with the category one and two responders (local public sector organisations and infrastructure organisations).

This, rather useful, document goes through each of the civil contingencies duties  and explains what they “must” do, what they “should” do and then outlines indicators of good practice.

I have of course jumped straight to the section on communicating with the public.

The must dos

  • Category 1 responders must maintain arrangements to warn the public, and to provide information  and advice to the public, if an emergency is likely or has occurred. They must also arrange for the publication of risk assessments and plans in so far as publication is necessary or desirable for the purpose of: preventing an emergency; reducing, controlling or mitigating its effects; or enabling other action to be taken in connection with an emergency.
  • Responders within the LRF must facilitate the agreement of measures to educate, warn and inform the public
  • In arranging for the publication of assessments and plans, there is a collective duty to have regard to the importance of: not unnecessarily alarming the public; and safeguarding sensitive information that is relevant to the Prepare and Protect strands of CONTEST
  • Responders within the LRF must collectively support neighbouring LRFs in producing a generic, multi-area emergency response plan that includes a framework for awareness raising.

 

This shouldn’t be a surprise but it’s worth remembering the scope of what cat ones and LRFs are supposed to do with communications.

The should dos

  • The LRF should collectively identify Category 1 responders’ assessments and plans that may require part or full publication in accordance with the CCA.
  • The LRF should collectively support the design of procedures to warn and inform the public in its area, where necessary identifying strengths and brokering support.
  • The LRF should collectively examine the nomination of a lead agency among Category 1 responders and develop protocols for collaborative arrangements at the time of an emergency.
  • The LRF should support efforts to ensure that local warning and informing procedures have regard to similar plans held by Category 2 responders, government agencies or other bodies, and that unnecessary duplication is avoided.
  • The LRF should undertake collective scrutiny to validate warning and informing plans, where possible using independent and peer review processes to ensure quality and compliance with statutory guidance and advice. Where risk assessments or plans contain sensitive information, only summary or edited versions should be published.
  • The LRF should consider collectively what communication systems and procedures would be used by Category 1 responders to communicate with one another during an emergency. The National Resilience Extranet is the recommended principal mechanism for this communication.
  • The LRF should operate a programme to test and exercise warning and informing procedures, involving, where appropriate, independent or external peer review.
  • The LRF should use formats and systems that make information accessible, usable and useful to the public.
  • The LRF should ensure collectively that national security guidance principles are carefully considered before information relating to the detail of risk assessments or emergency plans is published.

 

Some top tips in here. The way we manage emergencies in this country means that lots of agencies must co-operate in the task of communicating with the public. Developing our plans together, sharing them and exercising them jointly would clearly benefit our citizens. Practically, it is difficult to see how much of this work will be prioritised given the current state of resources in the local public sector.

Also if the Cabinet Office wants people to use the NRE it should probably make better.

Indicators of good practice

  • The LRF has collective strategies or protocols identifying lead responder roles and appropriate methods used to inform the public in the area at the time of an emergency about assessed risks and planned responses.
  • The LRF collaborates with other multi-agency partnerships (such as Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships) in promoting public information.
  • The LRF engages partner organisations, including the Voluntary Sector and local community organisations / groups, and other tiers in its public information strategies.
  • Local partners among media organisations have been engaged and are committed to the LRF media plans for sharing information.
  • LRF member organisations have developed a shared understanding of, and commitment to, collective media plans across their media and resilience staff.
  • The LRF warning and informing strategy is linked with the Community Risk Register and includes consideration of any other risks from outside the area that may have an impact.
  • The LRF has established a programme to prioritise, test, exercise and validate its public information delivery, involving, where appropriate, independent or external peer reviews.
  • The LRF uses validated information from different sources to assess the effectiveness and impact of public information strategies.
  • The LRF ensures public transparency with regard to effective, exercised and up-to-date plans for both response and recovery.
  • Independent research and customer satisfaction surveys show that the public feels well informed.

 

I rather like this list of indicators. LRFs that manage to achieve this really would be able to describe themselves as good.

This is assuming that media includes all this online and social stuff.

This could provide an excellent basis for an action plan for LRF comms groups. Of course there may be LRFs that already display these indicators. I’d love to find out which ones so I can ask them how they did it.

 

Photo: 1964 – B-52 checklist by James Vaughan CC BY-SA 2.0

Where it happens: a trip to the FCO crisis response centre

Emergency cupboard

When I first took over emergency planning for a local authority my emergency control centre consisted of a cupboard housing two VHF radios and a 60 watt light bulb.

We also had a back up generator.

For the light bulb.

I did manage to negotiate a small office with resilient telecoms, PCs and the inevitable VHF radios. It was a constant battle to stop people occupying the tantalisingly empty desks. But it paid dividends when actual emergencies occurred. Everyone knew where to go, we didn’t disrupt normal operations too much, and we had the tools we needed to hand.

Which is the thinking behind the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Crisis Response Centre.

The centre

Essentially this is a massive office, with 110 desks. It is ready to go if a significant incident occurs that will affect British citizens or interests. I was lucky enough to get a tour round from Shane Dillon, Crisis Technology and Communications Officer. For security reasons I couldn’t take photos and I agreed to submit this post to the FCO before publication.

The Foreign Office is pretty unusual. It has to respond to war, political challenge and natural disasters across the globe. It has staff stationed in dangerous and unpredictable environments. How much can the rest of us really learn from how they structure their crisis response? Quite a lot I think.

Things that struck me (in no particular order)

The centre is dominated by a huge wall screen which can display rolling TV news, social media feeds, mapping or any combination of the above. The FCO monitors social networks alongside conventional media and old fashoned sources of intelligence once a crisis is declared.

The centre has a series of islands intended to be staffed by various teams in a pre-planned arrangement but with flexibility to respond to the distinct nature of specific incidents.

They use Bronze, Silver and Gold nomenclature. I find that these labels are in no way consistently applied between organisations. In this case the Gold Commander is running the crisis response. They will be in the crisis centre and clearly labeled as such. There are bronze teams. Some of these seemed a little more like the STAC concept we have in civil contingencies rather than the operational tier.

There is none of the raking, or tiering I have seen in some control centres. In fact the facility is notably flat. It’s clearly a really flexible space. I think it would be interesting, at least as a thought experiement, to consider whether an LRF could use a similar facility. Rather than having silvers in local police stations and gold in the HQ, why not use one large space. Everyone on tap, everyone sighted on the same issues. Some of the logistical issues would be non-trivial of course.

Each desk has a phone, a PC (on the FCO network) and a monitor. Each workstation also has a small TV screen. You can see how useful that would be to a team monitoring local media while the main screens showed the global news output. There is also the facility for non-FCO staff to bring their own devices and get online, though there is no wifi. That surprised me, I wasn’t allowed to bring my mobile phone in, but presumably partners would bring mobile equipment and expect to use it.

Though the majority of people working in the centre would be FCO staff there would be likely to be staff from other departments and even outside agencies depending on the nature of the crisis. They’ve clearly thought through the implications of this in terms of technology. At a local level we are very bad at this and it presents an ever increasing risk to multi—agency response.

A second, smaller room allows more than one incident to be managed in parallel (which has happened recently). There is also the facility to hold smaller meetings (really for the gold commander) and an attached call centre that can be spun up to handle in-bound enquiries. We couldn’t visit the obligatory boardroom but I am assured it was there.

There is a kitchen and a small staff room. In some ways this is totally unremarkable but the moment I saw it it struck me that I can’t recall the last time I saw a local control centre or silver facility with an appropriate level of welfare space immediately adjacent. It’s really important. We, and presumably the FCO, ask staff to work under considerable pressure and to make rapid decisions with far reaching consequences based on imperfect information. Space to step away from that and clear your head makes a huge difference. Though this does mean that the piece of resilience tech I got most excited about was a fridge.

The crisis response team is based in the centre. This is a pragmatic allocation of space but I imagine it normalises the centre and encourages the team to think about small changes. We tend to lock our response centres away and when we open them in anger we often reveal the things we wish we had remembered to change. They also run exercises in the centre. This makes sense for use makes master.

I asked about the resilience of the facility but any detail on those issues clearly would have security implications. Shane did assure me that they have the plans and procedures you would expect them to have.

In summary

I took up a surprising amount of civil servant time asking questions about what is, at heart, a large open plan office. It’s more than that though, it is a space that has been well thought through and designed, not just for the purpose to which it will be put but with a recognition that every incident is different and flexibility must be designed in.

Thanks to Shane and his colleagues for their warm welcome and being so generous with their time.


Photo is The new FCO Crisis Response Centre by HM Government and used under CC BY-ND 2.0

Open and shut: social networks can improve your information picture

“Last year all this was surrounded by water”

Not surprisingly the emergency planners of Wales are very interested in flooding. The received wisdom is that the biggest risk to communities is from the sea but the astonishing weather of 2012 brought rivers into the homes of thousands of folk many of whom have yet to return.

I was at the Spring Conference of the EPS Wales Branch. I was there on a speaking gig but I would have gone as a delegate. The fact that the committee managed, once again, to deliver a quality event that really meets the needs of their members should be an inspiration to other branches and other societies.

I won’t go into detail about many of the presentations because some of them were the no-holds-barred stuff you get amongst peers and may not suit broadcast on a public blog.

But two presentations did seem to link together to tell a story.

We heard from a local authority emergency planner who had been involved in the response to a significant series of flooding event. Some things had gone well, some had gone less well but thankfully there were no deaths and low levels of injuries.

As has happened in every emergency I have ever been involved in they had struggled with the information picture. Sitting in your office while storms rage around you and teams of people on the ground are very concerned with operations and less concerned with sit reps can be a frustrating experience. But without the picture it is harder to make good decisions.

Then we heard from the excellent Barry Jones (until very recently at BBC Wales) about how the BBC had approached the coverage of several emergencies across Wales last year. This was in itself fascinating but most striking was his analysis of the social media traffic around the specific incidents discussed above.

He had no doubt that there were sufficient data in social networks to build a much improved imformation picture around that incident.

There is a presumption amongst those of us who work in this sphere that monitoring social media should help responders to understand what is going on. In the UK many emergency planners and responders continue to rely almost exclusively on traditional models for collecting and analysising data. It is practically hard to prove that there is data available that they are missing by not monitoring the onlibne environment.

But this was an open and shut case.

Warning and informing is not even the start of it

I’ve been working very specifically on the impact of digital media on emergency planning for a couple of years now.

In that time we have seen a big shift in the attitude of some (but by no means all) emergency responders to online networks. I think most police forces and many local authorities now recognise that social networks have an important role to play in warning and informing the public.

Police services certainly also get the idea that there is valuable intelligence to be gleaned from these networks. To such an extent that we can now have conversations about the legal and governance frameworks that they operate under. I also have questions about how quickly they can deploy intelligence resources to presenting incidents.

Job done then?

Well I don’t think so. Because what excites me, and (from an emergency planning point of view) scares me, about this technology is the power it gives to individuals. We’ve really got to get a handle on how this changes things for responders and public safety.

Citizens have always used their networks to build information pictures. I remember when the factory in my home town caught fire (1993 children: long before mobile phones were available to most of us) it was the talk of the pubs. We triangulated data. We heard people say “so and so said this”, “I got this from my Brother who works at the factory”. That’s no different.

What’s different is we can do that in real time and from much wider networks.

So we respond rapidly based on an information picture only partly (if at all) informed by official sources.

And we are susceptible to people seeding our networks with false information for mischief or for malice.

I do not think any responders are factoring this fundamental change into their planning, tactics and changing. Apart from, possibly, in the area of public order where tactics have, of necessity changed.

Luckily you don’t need to take my word for it because proper academics are looking into this area. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a workshop hosted by the Resilience Team at Birmingham City Council where the team working on the DFuse project (funded by the EPSRC)  presented some of their findings and asked us to vaildate their work. Essentially give it a reality check.

On the basis of what I saw it’s a big project that stands to generate a load of useful learning. I believe the project will report fully in October but some papers have already been published.

Some of the work is interesting but not too many lessons for practice can yet be learned. There is a strong indication that the ability to communicate with each other during an evacuation may well change the behaviour of those being evacuated.

There’s some much stuff that is much more directly applicable. I really liked the study looking at what types of data are shared and sought at different stages following an incident.

For the moment I direct you to the paper (written by two Professors and three Doctors no less) presented at Department of Homeland Security Science Conference in March 2011 [PDF] which seems to lay out the areas the team was going to be looking into.

Some extracts to meditate upon include:

We consider that Web 2.0 technologies have produced a paradigm shift in the ways in which emergency response and evacuation on transport networks is coordinated. Information can now be controlled and disseminated by various publics, including (potentially) by terrorist groups. The ways in which such interference in social media could disrupt evacuation and emergency  response in mass transit systems has been under estimated.

And

We are in a situation where control of information and co-ordination is impossible – the spectra are too wide and the networks too large and diffuse – so solutions in terms of influence and suggestion are more plausible. Additionally, the scale of a multiple attack, or a natural disaster, on a major transport system in an English city has not always been a focus for academic research and there is a paucity of work in modeling extensive evacuations in England where ‘large’ or ‘mass’ evacuations  present ‘…the greatest challenge’.

It’s going to be useful stuff but we don’t need to wait for the academics to know that the world has fundamentally changed.

So if you have properly integrated social media into your warning and informing procedures (no small task for mult-agency response). Well done.

If you can provide good quality, timely and relevant data out of social media to your tactical and strategic teams. Excellent.

But you have barely started on the hard stuff.

Photo is Fire drill! by avixyz and used under CC BY-SA 2.0

 

Can we get a handle on social media early in an incident?

Last week I had 5 days of conferencing stuff. I went to Bluelightcamp and to the Emergency Planning Society Welsh Branch meeting. I’m still assimilating the learning from those.

I also spent a couple of days at the British APCO show and conference with Steph Gray from Helpful Technology. You can see what we got up to here.

British APCO is the British Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. Essentially the people who are interested in making sure that communication never fails in critical situations for the blue-light services. Consequently there were lots of shiny bits of kit and lots of resilient control centre systems. They also organised a panel session on social media and major incidents with a great cast-list. I live-blogged from that session and I’ve been reflecting on many of the things that were shared there.

One of the areas of risk within social media in emergencies, in the UK experience at least, is the different expectations, resources and capacity of different responders. I asked a question about that. Mark Payne who is a Superintendent from West Midlands Police said he felt that Gold and Silver Commanders needed to get a handle on this early on in an incident.

What could this mean. In practical terms?

Well in the Police Service a Silver Commander is the officer with tactical responsibility and Gold the officer with overall and strategic responsibility.

As a first step these people should have on their list of things to check

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and, presumably,

“who is giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

And of course those people will need to have some data about the incident so they can share it with online communities. The traditional model of decide, implement and hold a press conference is pretty dead now (or should be). The new model of decide, implement and share some of your tactical thinking live with the world is going to take some getting used to.

And there is further mud to cloud the waters.

In civil emergencies the Gold and Silver Commanders are the people who chair (respectively) the strategic and tactical multi-agency groups. At the start of an incident these people are very commonly police officers (though in principle they could work for any service). Once the incident moves into recovery they usually switch to a local authority manager.

Let’s imagine their checklists again:

“who’s keeping online communities informed?” and

“who’s giving me sensible intelligence derived from online communities”

No longer just which member of staff but which member of staff in which agency. And where do they get their data and where do they send their intelligence?

We do have the concept of lead responder. Essentially the principle is that the agency with most work to do will lead on comms. That’s pretty sound: in a river flood event the Environment Agency probably has access to most of the critical data. Lead responders still need to get information out of their partners. The fire and rescue service knows where its pumps are, the local authority knows where the evacuation (rest) centres are.

When we overlay the process for monitoring social media platforms for relevant data it becomes more complex. Many police forces seem to have improved their capacity for intelligence gathering on social media but they often use approaches that are slow to deploy. Even if they deploy effectively how much data will they share with partners and who will be looking for the other relevant data. The police know a lot about crime but a lot less about the safety of contaminated water or what reports of flooding in particular locations tell us about the progress of an incident.

This means much more effective integrated comms than many agencies have been geared up for.

One year ago Exercise Watermark found

“In some LRF areas, members of the police force in a strategic coordinating group, rigidly controlled the media messages. In one area, further delays were caused by key flood warning press releases having to go through the strategic coordinating group clearance process.”

Press officers were also concerned about the location of the multi-agency communications cell, a group of press officers from the concerned response organisations. Access to strategic coordinating group members was essential but Tactical coordination group members would guarantee quicker access to the hard facts and figures. Physical location was also important; the press officer in charge of the Suffolk communications cell said that he had excellent access to strategic coordinating group members, and the Chief Constable was available for media interviews.”

(Page 27 3.113 & 3.114 Exercise Watermark Final Report)

How many areas have reviewed their procedures for managing press releases and journalists in the light of this finding?

We need to get much better at all of this stuff.

The Riots Communities and Victims Panel found (amongst many other useful and challenging things) that

“The riots highlighted how far behind many public services are around the use of widely used modern methods of communication, such as social media.”

(Page 12, After the riots The final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel)

So Mark Payne is right.

Are we ready?

 

 

 

I grabbed a couple of minutes with Mark Payne on video just before the event.

20 thoughts from #ukgc12


Photo of a toy dragon wearing headphones

On Friday and Saturday I went to the UK Gov Camp in London. Along with about 300 other, fairly geeky, people. It’s an annual unconference full of energy, ideas and a lot of typing. The excellent Dan Slee has floated the idea of noting down 20 things that struck one after the event. These, for better or worse, are my 20.

I have more to write, in particular about open data in housing, housing benefit apps and Ushahidi. But for now:

1. My netbook running Ubuntu Linux is way cooler than your Macbook Air

2. Many of the issues relating to open data relate to the way organisations perceive and use data rather than openness

3. If anyone asks you to show the ROI of social media you should explain to them that they know nothing about communications

4. The public sector is massive, complex and messy. And it’s only one part of public services

5. We must not lose sight of accountability, governance and power issues in the quest for excellent services

6. When do we move the open data debate out of the state and into corporates?

7. The Ushahidi community and the wider crisis mapping communities are a bit wonderful

8. It’s really healthy to ask why we do this thing (or that thing, or a third thing)  at all

9. Talking is great, doing is better, doing without talking first is a waste

10. We maybe don’t have as many models of mutuality as we could do

11. Open data is a governance issue for every organisation. Or should be.

12. QR Codes are so much more wonderful than I had imagined

13. Brompton riders rule

14. While Sharepoint may not be evil, it is a pig. Still, properly wrangled, it’s amazing what a pig can achieve

15. Putting things on maps is cool. Giving others the power to put things on maps is disruptive

16. Shropshire leads the world in Jelly (the foolishly named co-working movement rather than the trifle ingredient). Jelly shows how economic development could be really different

17. We need leaders who understand networks

18. We need to understand networks

19. I am very tired

20. This year will be all about Ushahidi.

Photo is by David J Pearson and depicts one of the delegates (Puffles). Used under CC BY-SA-2.0.

Interesting things are afoot in, of all places, Gloucestershire.
I mean no disrespect to that fine county.

Alright I mean a certain amount of disrespect: I was born and bred in Herefordshire. We don’t have much to look down on but we try to look down on Gloucestershire. Though they have a very nice cathedral and can make a passable bottle of cider.

I didn’t ask Jon Hall to comment on these matters.

Though he has worked for Hereford and Worcester Fire and Rescue Service and now he runs Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service.

And their Highways department.

And he’s the Chief Fire Officers Association lead on National Resilience (deploying CBRN and USAR teams in the event of significant incidents).

And he’s one of a growing band of “suits” (uniforms in this case) championing social media. He tweets as @GlosFireChief and where he has influence he is using it to make better use of new technology.

Twitter streams have popped up for Gloucestershire’s Fire and Rescue Service, Highways, and Local Resilience Forum. Localgovcampers will be delighted to learn that Gloucestershire has joined the ranks of the twitter gritters*.

Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Commanders find that they are strongly encouraged from the top to get on twitter. In fact Jon believes that social media is a core skill for everyone working in civil protection and crisis management.

“If you are a Station Commander and you are not paying attention to social media, you cannot know your patch” he says.

Despite the global reach twitter gives him, Jon has found the most significant benefits from the local community. Through twitter he has made connections with parish councillors and other local community leaders that he would struggle to meet in the real world of a large, mostly rural county.

So he encourages everyone to get on social media if only to listen to what’s going on. He is very clear on the importance of local intelligence. In fact some of his officers were embedded with Gloucestershire Police intelligence analysts during the August riots.

His Head of Highways role is a pragmatic response to reorganisation imposed by the cuts but it has given the county a new perspective on issues like flood planning and road safety.

It seems fair to say that Jon is not hidebound by traditional ways of doing things. Gloucestershire Fire and Rescue Service has just announced an integrated command with a river rescue charity: Severn Area Rescue Association. One SARA team is now based within a Fire Station and firefighters and volunteers deploy together.

Jon says that SARA brings different capabilities. The Fire Service needs slipways, SARA can launch craft down muddy banks. Close working means the Fire Service can have confidence in the training and quality of the volunteer partner.

I asked him whether this was a one off or the start of more state/volunteer integration. He definitely sees more of this sort of thing in the future. Though I’m not sure he was thinking about digital volunteering programmes like standby taskforce (which I was).

Despite the enthusiasm, Gloucestershire hasn’t yet started including social media in exercises. Jon is also conscious that more imaginative uses could be made of the technology. He pointed me towards #woofwednesday which has been used to talk about UK search dog teams, personal safety when dog walking and a whole host of other messages targeted to dog lovers.

And finally, Jon has a simple message for his fellow Chief Fire Officers.

“Take the reins off and let people go for it”

*If this is your sort of thing you might like my social media checklist for councils gearing up for winter.

Controlling the rumours. Interview with Neil Tipton of West Mercia Police.

I had a chat with Neil Tipton, Web Development Officer at West Mercia Police, on 24 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what he told me.

Background

West Mercia is the constabulary serving the counties of Herefordshire, Shropshire (and Telford and Wrekin), and Worcestershire.

We make extensive use of Facebook as part of our regular campaigns. We’ve been using the platform for two years. Since May 2010 we have also had a corporate Twitter account, largely publishing news releases. We make some use of YouTube and have accounts on other social networks largely to protect our username.

We had explicitly planned to use our corporate Twitter account for real time public communication in major incidents as well as day-to-day interaction. We had also explicitly planned to use social media for rumour control around major incidents.

We do not yet have officially sanctioned local social media accounts (for neighbourhood policing teams for example) but this is something we are actively exploring for future implementation.

Trigger and escalation

We had an operational plan in place for policing a march by the English Defence League and opposition groups in the Shropshire/Telford town of Wellington. As part of this plan comms staff were to be mobilised to monitor social media networks to challenge rumours and provide an authoritative voice.

We were obviously monitoring the disorder in London and other parts of the country. Even so the Monday was a normal working day. North Worcestershire is in our area and borders the West Midlands so when incidents were reported in Birmingham that seemed closer to home. That evening I was at home looking at how other forces were using social media. At 2300hrs we received the first question direct to the force twitter account asking us for information on rumours of a riot in our area.

There were not then, nor at any point during the following few days, any incidents of significant disorder across West Mercia. We had very isolated examples of criminal damage and trouble but nothing out of the normal run of policing.

I called the control room, they were receiving high volumes of calls from residents worried that riots might be spreading to our towns and cities. I began tweeting from home, controlling rumours. Social media activity died down again by 0100hrs.

On Tuesday the force started Operation Denver to reassure our communities and keep West Mercia calm. As part of that we started a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for the comms team so there was always one person on duty handling social media.

We monitored Twitter and Facebook and corrected misinformation. We sent public @ messages to individual users if they were repeating rumours and answered questions presented to us. We thought that tone was important. We tried to be friendly and authoritative. We were occasionally lighthearted: I added an #unfamiliarkeyboardfail hashtag at one point. But we were ready to modify that tone if the situation had deteriorated.

At its peak, we were dealing with questions and comments directed at us at a rate of one every 10 seconds and keeping track of whether we had replied and when was a challenge. Hootsuite was a very useful tool to help us to collaborate and check who had done what.

As the week progressed it became clearer that no incidents of disorder were happening within West Mercia and the situation began to calm. Our biggest challenge became finding new ways to say “nothing is happening, the situation is calm”.

On the Saturday we had to police a static demonstration by the English Defence League and other opposition groups in Wellington (the Home Secretary having banned marches). This involved a co-ordinated effort between comms staff for the police and also Telford & Wrekin Council . As well as managing the traditional media, a large part of our communications activites were again focused on social media, where we worked hard to provide timely updates based on fact not conjecture.

One of the challenges in fluid situations like these is that you can state a fact, correctly – such as there are no incidents, everything is calm – but five minutes later something may be happening that contradicts this. However, we tried to be clear and prompt to keep people informed of what was happening and when and always correct or update statements as the known facts emerged.

We went from 2,000 twitter followers to 4,500 in a few days. The force website received a months worth of traffic in just one week.

Learning points

It was fun to move from what might sometimes be considered a back office role to the front line and nice to have a feel of direct relevance. We had a lot of positive feedback from the public about our use of social media including someone who said that we had “Really changed my perception of the police”.

The force had always acknowledged the importance of social media but now that officers have seen it in a real environment they really understand its relevance. Social media impacts on how these events unfold. Our Chief Constable David Shaw has been very clear that social networking is now a permanent feature both of our thinking and our response to major events and incidents from now on.

The challenge for us is to sustain the momentum. We want to keep our followers and continue to explore the engagement opportunities this affords us. Encouragingly, we haven’t had lots of people turning off our Facebook updates from their newsstream or choosing to stop following us on Twitter in the days since the protests and national disorder.

Message to other category one responders

Don’t underestimate the volume of messages you will need to handle, or the staffing implications this may bring

Tone is really important.

You need to have systems to allow you to handle social media work between several members of staff, particularly for Twitter, where the standard interface is difficult to work with.

Neil tweets as @neiltipton and he has written up his recent experiences for the Guardian

You can find West Mercia Police on twitter @wmerciapolice and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/westmerciapolice

I had a chat with Amanda Coleman, Head of Corporate Communications at Greater Manchester Police on 23 Aug 2011. I was particularly interested in the process behind the force’s escalation on social media and the learning from it. This is an edited version of what she told me.


Background
Greater Manchester Police is the constabulary serving the conurbation around Manchester in the North west of England. It employs 8,000 police staff and 4,000 other staff. The corporate comms team stands at 36 (including a number of staff employed on dedicated roles such as working within the police museum).

We saw the value of social media in 2010,  developed a social media strategy and started using several social media channels. A big turning point came in October with the 24hr twitter marathon.

Our corporate team has been training police staff in neighbourhood teams to make use of twitter. Out of 52 neighbourhoods 45 have twitter accounts (all badged and starting with GMP). For example @GMPDidsbury (run by PCSO Ben Scott) has over 2,000 followers.

We use twitter extensively along with flickr and youtube. We had struggled to find a clear business role for facebook, prior to the recent disorder.

Our social media use was driven by a combination of wanting to improve engagement, reduce costs and make communications more interactive. We hadn’t given too much thought to integrating social media into emergency plans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger and escalation

 

Obviously we were aware of the disorder in London. Pockets of disorder took place on Sunday night / Monday morning in Liverpool and Birmingham. On Tuesday the force level meetings began planning for the if, where and when and the force command suite was opened.

We developed a social media plan quickly as the situation unfolded. The fact that we had a team already familiar with the tools and networks was vital in doing this successfully.

Communications staff were put on a rota to support intelligence staff with social media monitoring in an operational context. They also monitored the networks for communication related information from within the command suite.

We kept talking to people on the networks, gathering data and getting messages out promptly. We aimed to challenge inaccuracies but did not get into issues where the force had no data. We aimed to make the corporate account the focal point of trusted information. We wanted the message to be “check with GMP”.

We use a conversational and personal tone normally on our twitter account. We continued this through the disorder and afterwards.

There was a period when disorder was escalating when the situation was very confused and we were silent for a couple of hours. In retrospect we should have put out some comments. We will definitely learn from that experience.

We sent guidance to the people operating local, official, twitter accounts and encouraged them keep a sense of normality and to follow messages from the corporate feed as appropriate. Greater Manchester is a big area and most areas were untouched by the trouble. Having neighbourhood accounts behaving normally and providing reassurance was very valuable.

We put press conferences straight onto our Youtube site and began to post CCTV (and other) images of those suspected of crimes onto our flickr site within hours of the first reports of disorder. There were over 1 million views of these “most wanted” pictures within days. At the peak over 101,000 people were following our corporate twitter account.

And we found a use for facebook in sharing these images and receiving images and reports from the public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learning points

 

Senior officers in GMP have described social media (in the light of these experiences) as a “game changer for policing”. We had to deploy significant amounts of communication resources on a nearly 24/7 shift pattern for several days. We had five or six quite intense days.

Our on-call press team now check twitter as part of their response and we are always aware that journalists read our twitter feed so all our corporate communications channels have to be integrated.

We already run exercises to test how well we deal with media enquiries in major incidents. We will be looking to make sure we integrate social media into those exercises in future.

We were able to respond successfully only because we were already using social media networks and had the skills necessary to adapt to this situation.

We made mistakes on some occasions. The situation and the medium move with such speed that it was easy to trip up. We tried to catch these mistakes, put our hands up, apologise and move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Message to other category one responders

 

Do your preparation, make sure you understand the networks and plan.

Amanda tweets as @amandacomms.

I did some very quick analysis of GMP’s twitter as part of this blog post.