Working with Helpful Technology to exercise social media plans

We’re pleased to say that we’ve teamed up with Helpful Technology Ltd to provide social media simulations tailored to category one responders. Helpful Technology brings the Social Simulator platform which enables real-time modeling of online news, blogs, forum and social media traffic – such as Twitter and Facebook – within a secure environment. The Likeaword Consultancy brings expertise in digital skills for emergency planning. Between us we can deliver a compelling and convincing scenario played out in real time and with dynamic responses to players’ actions.The two companies were talking about linking up well before the recent civil disorder. They believe that it has highlighted the importance of planning and exercising the online component of emergency response.

Steph Gray (@lesteph) from Helpful Technology said

“There are specific skills needed to engage in networks like Twitter and Facebook effectively as a corporate organisation, but until now it’s been hard to train in a realistic way. The Simulator offers a secure environment that we can tailor to local situations, reflecting local media and specific local forums as necessary. Exercise control staff can interact dynamically in the platform, responding to social media updates from other participants and maintaining their own corporate presences.

We’ve run successful, highly-realistic exercises that really stretch comms teams in the public and private sectors and we think that the package has a lot to offer emergency responders.”

Helpful Technology’s platform is a great tool to really test the communication aspects of plans. It can be used to deliver an exercise focused entirely on the online aspects of an incident or to provide an online environment as part of a wider live or desk exercise. I’m thrilled that, working in partnership, we can offer a completely seamless exercise design, implementation and review service to the emergency planning community.

For more information on the system visit and for more information on the integrated offering to the emergency planning community contact us.

For a second night London has seen violent disorder in several locations. The Metropolitan Police has engaged in a significant public order policing effort.

There will be many reviews and there are already many arguments about the causes and triggers of these events. The Police tactics have been criticised. The actions of the Police surrounding the death of a Tottenham man have also been criticised and are the subject of a review by the IPCC.

I want to look at three issues which all emergency managers should be reviewing this morning.

1 How rapidly can you deploy on social media?

There is no doubt that the Met has wised-up to the existence of Social Media. There is no doubt that the scale and speed with which Saturday night’s violence erupted surprised the Police. Had they had intelligence that such disorder was likely, it seems likely that they would have been ready to use their corporate channels as part of a policing plan. But the Tottenham riot took them by surprise. They clearly had to scramble to deploy resources, to seek to get ahead of the incident and to ensure an effective chain of command. The incident was playing out across twitter from Saturday evening. The MetPolice twitter account was silent on the matter until Sunday midday. Since then it’s been a bit more active. This may have been a tactical decision. If so it was the wrong one.

Scrambling onto social media presents a series of problems for many organisations. Practically though, it is the way most bodies are going to deploy social media in emergencies. You need a structured approach. You need to be able to mobilise someone (someones) with appropriate training so that they don’t inflame matters, reveal confidential tactics or otherwise make matters worse. They need sufficient standing with the incident commander that they can provide meaningful advice and suggestions. They need to be available at short notice and have access to the requisite kit, passwords and support documentation.

It’s widely held in emergency planning circles that emergencies always occur on Saturday nights or Sunday mornings. This probably isn’t true. But you really need your plans when they do.

2. Have you trained for third party use of social media?

When I talk to emergency planners about social media (and mobile and related tech) these days they tend to focus on the organisational uses of the technology. “We could have a facebook page” they say “and use it to warn people about incidents”. That’s all very true and you certainly should do that.

There is, until I get going, less of a focus on the impact of social media on the wider community. Riots need several things: they need an underlying feeling of anger, dissatisfaction, resentment. They need a trigger. And they need a bunch of people to join in. Social media has impacts on all those aspects but its most spectacular impact is on the scale and speed at which people can be mobilised. It does look very much as though this was the effect in Tottenham. People used private and public networks to share information about the riots. The pictures of police cars on fire caused most of us to shake our heads and worry about the local community. It seems to have caused some people to think “I’ll have a bit of that”.

We need new plans to handle these new forms of communication. Only a few years ago you could control a bought of disorder if you got enough resources on the ground quickly enough to isolate the instigators then keep enough force around to stop groups from forming. That task has become much more complex because of the ability of crowds to share information over any distance, to actively coordinate or to merely share intelligence, to recruit and plan dynamically. A load of abilities that used to be reserved to the police with their radios, control centres and command structures.

And it’s not just violent disorder. Imagine the impact of social media and related tech on another fuel crisis, a Pandemic Influenza incident, foot and mouth.

Scale and speed. That’s what should become your mantra. Scale and Speed.

3. Are you training for greater openness?

This is a one-way street. The whole world has instant access to news, views and comment from any incident, certainly in the west. 24hr rolling news is the least of it.

The traditional approach of tackle the incident, try to bring things under control and then hold a press conference may not be appropriate in this new world. On the other hand it probably isn’t appropriate to give a minute-by-minute account of operational policing decisions. Somewhere in between those two is the new balance. Next year the balance will shift, and again, and again. It only moves in one direction

Incident commanders work in a goldfish bowl now. How well trained are they for the new world? And how well supported?

In summary

Social media and online tech does not fundamentally change the management of emergencies but it must radically alter the tactics used by responders.

The effects of the new technology need to permeate not just the corporate comms team but all aspects of the planning and decision making process. This is not only about warning and informing its about a fundamental change in the way citizens behave in emergencies.

Photo Credit: Firefighters – High Road Tottenham & Lansdowne Road by Alan Stanton used under CC BY-SA 2.0


Things to pay attention to: Exercise Watermark

Exercise Watermark was one of the largest civil contingency exercise every conducted in the UK. It involved all layers of emergency response in large parts of England and Wales from central government to local communities in “playing” a realistic flooding scenario. The purpose was to test the country’s plans and procedures and to identify areas for further improvement.
The Exercise ran in March 2011

The interim findings were published in June [opens a PDF click here for the source page].

The final findings will be published in September.

I want to highlight a couple of areas.

Working with traditional media.

The report had a team playing the role of media organisations and therefore was able to test how effectively responders worked with conventional media organisations.

There were a number of learning points raised in the draft report and I strongly urge everyone in communications in a Category One Responder to review pages 38 and 39 pretty soon. There were issues of “empowering” press officers and of individual responders not being active in terms of their media relations. I was particularly struck by paragraph 4.57

In LRF areas there were some problems with Police Gold Commanders exacting rigid control over the multi-agency media cell, even to the extent in one area of stopping the Environment Agency issuing such flood warning press releases, until they had passed through the local Gold clearance process, which led to more delay.

Clearly a police Gold Commander hasn’t got the power to stop the Environment Agency issuing press releases but this highlights the need to exercise multi-agency communications arrangements and to train everyone involved in the response.

There are three draft recommendations in this area:

  • Draft Recommendation 20 – Press Officer media response training should cover time management and resource issues such as mutual aid so that organisations can exercise and develop mutual aid techniques, ‘like for like press officers’.
  • Draft Recommendation 21 – Press officers should be empowered to ensure communication with the media is not delayed by awaiting sign-off from senior management.
  • Draft Recommendation 22 – Top Line Briefs from the News Co-ordination Centre should be briefer and more frequent, while the West Yorkshire LRF releases should be used as a template for future multi-agency releases on flood incidents.

This is before we move on to social media. Where the draft report has much to say (pages 39-42).

Social media.

11 out of the 26 core agencies and government departments did not engage at all with the exercise social media stream. Some agencies who did engage used social media as a broadcast tool, essentially treating it as an extension to conventional media. The report is very positive about the benefits that can flow from effective use of social media and there are these three draft recommendations as a result.

  • Draft Recommendation 23 – There should be an audit to assess social media capability, capacity and access within government departments and the emergency responder community. Actions that remove barriers to social media interaction should be considered.
  • Draft Recommendation 24 – Government departments and responders should ‘lead the conversation’ and engage with social media.
  • Draft Recommendation 25 – To improve consistency, emergency responders need to undertake a basic social media training so they understand the language, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats posed by social media. Training should also cover practical guidance on use of existing internet tools to monitor and respond to comments on Twitter etc.

It was an event of considerable scale and significance. It highlighted many areas where the public should be reassured by the plans and procedures that are in place. That should not prevent responders from overlooking the many and very sensible recommendations for future improvements.

How 3D printing could change emergency response

This week, one of my favourite radio programmes: In Business ran a feature on 3D printing. I’ve been aware, in principle, of this technology for a while but I had it filed under the “interesting only for home electronics geeks”. This programme made me look at the possibilities all over again.

Essentially 3D printing allows you to use CAD and modified inkjet technology (and maybe lasers) to create complex structures in layers.

You can spread a layer of powder and use a laser to sinter it in the places you want a structure. Then spread another layer and another. Or you can spray a substance that hardens on its own (like concrete). So far so clever.

Once the technology is industrialised (and it is being used in commercial, if niche, applications already) it could herald a future of “mass customisation”. Your products build on demand to your highly specific requirements. Again, clever stuff but not really my field.

What I hadn’t considered but this programme highlights is what this will do to the supply chain. Instead of mass manufacturing components in different parts of the world, shipping, storing and assembling them: all you need to do is ship the raw material and print on demand. Shipping loads of powder offers a much more efficient and attractive prospect than shipping many things of many sizes and shapes. Whole items, modular house, cars, tables could be printed on site or at least very close by.

It will clearly be very disruptive to companies, states and communities.

Imagine the implications for disaster relief. Instead of maintaining strategic stockpiles of shelters, tools, equipment in anticipation of a disasters as yet unknown. Responders would only need to hold stockpiles of raw material (and have sufficient printing capacity and energy to make use of it). Responses could be rapid, targeted and tailored.

Of course what would make it really useful is the ability to print food. That could be a bit further off.

For more on 3D printing try these links (open source 3D printing project)

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