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Greetings from sunny and very warm Chicago where the first ever, DHS Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) National Conference is underway.  With more than 500+ attendees assembled at the Chicago Hilton, the program has assembled first responders, emergency managers and industry members from around the US (and world) to share, discuss and learn from one another what it takes to be interoperable with one another.

Below are some observations from the first day of the program (Wednesday, April 22nd).

Program Format

All of us are used to conference formats that are risk free and lets just say…predictable.  Not this one.  This program did something fairly novel – it opened the floor with open microphones to let the people on the front lines of every type of imaginable emergency to share success stories as well as their frank, blunt and very direct questions to the people at DHS (OEC, FEMA, etc.) that run the communications show.  That threw ”safe” and plain vanilla agenda out the window.  It was a tremendous risk and it paid off for them as it opened the program up to areas that might otherwise go unaddressed.

For example, when Chris Essid, OEC’s Director made his opening remarks, he invited the audience to share any recent success stories with the attendees.  After calling upon officials from Ohio and Chicago (who evidently he had met earlier in the morning) to stand up in the audience to talk about improvements they had made to respond to emergencies back home, he invited anyone from the audience to do the same.

Huh?

You could see attendees looking at one another and thinking, “What is this guy doing?”

Well it worked.

An attendee from Arkansas stood up, got a microphone and recounted some of the challenges they had encountered in recent ice storms and how they adjusted to the situation.

She was followed by a gentleman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who stood up and mentioned some of the improvements his community had made following Hurricane Katrina and how they had been tested this past year with Hurricanes Gustav and Ike.

It was a refreshing change of pace to the conventional conference format to put part of the program solely in the laps of its attendees.

It’s always a risk when you have “open mic” night at any event because truly anything can happen.  You could end up with a Jerry Springer Show ranting; someone delivering a long sermon on the mount and never gets to their point; someone saying something that makes no sense and becomes a confrontational, conspiracy-minded idiot or you could end up with a Susan Boyle moment.

While none of those things happened yesterday, Essid and the organizers showed tremendous respect and confidence in the audience that they would do the right thing when offered the opportunity to contribute directly to the program.  When given the opportunity, the attendees offered legitimate value and insights on one of the most challenging and contentious issues facing homeland security and public safety at large.

It was a very refreshing change of pace to the traditional homeland security conference format.

National Emergency Communications Plan

When the program turned to addressing the National Emergency Communications Plan, attendees were invited to assemble at their respective tables the questions and areas they wanted answered by DHS’ assembled leadership.  Again utilizing the open mic, they also invited the audience to text questions to them.

Instead of just taking the assembled questions for reference and saying, “We’ll get back to you,” they actually responded back with real answers.

Imagine…getting real answers to your questions.  Sort of novel don’t you think?

Sharing Success Stories

In his opening remarks, OEC Director Chris Essid described the interoperability challenge “as 10% challenge and 90% coordination.” Critical to any type of improvements in communications interoperability was the willingness of parties to build bridges and relationships with various constituencies that previously did not exist.  When it came to the media headlines that covered the events and emergencies of the day, it was Essid’s view (as well as a number of attendees) that the media all too often focused on the negative; the “what has failed now” part of response rather than what works or has improved.

To counter that coverage, Essid invited attendees to share with OEC their success stories either by the open mic (as previously described) or by texting/emailing them to oec@hq.dhs.gov so that they could be shared with him, his staff, the Department’s leadership and others.  It was a proactive move on his part to again build buy-in from the audience and larger communications stakeholders.

It also will give him and his OEC Team a reservoir of case studies to counter the arm-chair critics who all too often bemoan that nothing has been done to improve things in interoperability.

The use of the words “Terrorism” and “All-Hazards”

Of late there has been a lot of squabbles over the numbers of time the word “terrorism” is used in congressional testimony, speeches, etc.  With the 9/11 attacks occurring nearly 8 years ago and no major terror incidents happening in the US since then, there is a belief by some that terrorism as a threat has been forgotten about by the public at large.

I think it is safe to say that for these conference attendees, terrorism has not been forgotten.  I did find it interesting that it wasn’t until late in the afternoon program that Scott Wiggins, Director of Minnesota’s Division of Emergency Communication Networks remarks recounting the I-35W Bridge collapse in Minneapolis on August 1, 2007 that the word “terrorism” was first used.

Instead, the words “all-hazards” permeated the all of the remarks delivered yesterday.

That’s a pretty amazing and evolutionary shift in the communications history of talking about homeland security.

Upon the Department’s creation and for its first couple of years, all anyone seemed to stress from the podium and conference presentations was the threat of terrorism.  Following Katrina in 2005 and all of the other major regional events since then (fires, floods, other hurricanes, etc.), the larger homeland community has firmly embraced the term “all-hazards” to reference their challenges.

Needless to say it is an accurate and appropriate evolution in word usage and communicating the environment at hand and I think it is here to stay.

That says as much about the evolution of thinking at DHS as it does its national stakeholders in the public and private sectors.  We are all getting smarter and recognize that none of us can succeed alone.

I will have more updates from Chicago tomorrow….

Follow the conference on Twitter – @NCOEC. This is a first for DHS.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More