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