By now, most of us are successfully navigating remote meetings, workshops and training on a variety of platforms… but could these systems be stepped up to cope with the multitude of fast paced and complex interactions involved in incident response?
Virtual teams – ones made up of people in different physical locations – have moved from a cost effective business model to pandemic driven necessity. Over the past eight weeks OSRL has conducted and participated in multiple oil spill exercises to test virtual IMTs. Learnings from these exercises are applied here to the Australian context. Key points discussed below include linkages with interstate and regional personal and the requirement for additional personnel.
Australia has long wrestled with the need to maintain adequate response capacity balanced by an immense coastline and a relatively low risk of spills. Response models generally rely on cooperative arrangements for personnel, where mutual aid is provided through groups such as the National Response Team and Industry Core Groups. Virtual IMTs enhance the scope for inter agency cooperation, as personnel from diverse geographic locations could provide assistance without the need for travel, full time commitments or oversized Incident Control Centres. Roles that particularly benefit from virtual arrangements include experienced responders, that can shadow and provide coaching to key IMT roles, and subject matter experts for targeted technical advice. Twenty four hour operations could be taken on by personnel in differing time zones.
Virtual working arrangements could serve to strengthen links between the Incident Control Centre and the Forward Operating Base. Remote workers report that they enjoy being on an ‘equal footing’ with their urban colleagues in virtual teams. A universal competency in working remotely may better enable virtual IMTs to involve on‑scene personnel in the Incident Action Planning process.
Given that traditional IMTs for Australian responses are often established distant from the spill location, it is challenging to give local knowledge the emphasis it deserves. Virtual IMTs create a better platform to involve regional personnel including local government agencies, local contractors and indigenous groups. This may improve an IMT’s ability to deal with the unique, practical challenges in remote parts of Australia such as tides, dangerous marine fauna and access.
In addition to gaining access to responders with specific skills and knowledge, virtual IMTs may require higher numbers of personnel to ensure the team functions effectively and the limitations of information technology (IT) are mitigated.
During virtual IMT exercises, participants reported difficulties maintaining their situational awareness. Maintaining situational awareness in virtual IMTs is likely to be a more time consuming activity, necessitating more frequent and detailed briefings and more time allocated to updating and checking online displays, potentially reducing the productivity of the team.
IT factors in a virtual work environment are difficult to control, as some IT issues are related to local telecommunications connectivity and power access beyond the control of the response agency. Given the increased likelihood of IT challenges in virtual IMTs, additional provisions will be required. For example, deputy personnel must be nominated and prepared to give briefings and make decisions, in case the primary person is unable to ‘dial in’.
An organisation’s chosen virtual IMT software platform is likely to be customised to allow communications within pre-set teams such as Planning, Operations and Logistics. Whilst this facilitates good information flows within teams, exercise participants have reported inadequate information flows between teams. The use of designated liaison officers that roam from team to team had some success in mitigating this issue and restoring a ‘jelly bean’ effect, where information constantly flows between teams.
It was also noted by exercise participants that the timing and quality of multi-author documents was greatly improved when dedicated ‘Documentation Officers’ coordinated the process by crossing ‘team’ boundaries to liaise with authors, check revisions and drive deadlines.
If virtual IMTs require increased staff, this will further drive the provision of personnel beyond one agency or geographic location. As a result, responders will need a level of competency in all common virtual team software platforms, as no single platform will suit every organisation.
These findings show some opportunities and challenges likely to be faced by virtual IMTs. Two key ways to identify and mitigate challenges are
1. to incorporate virtual IMT systems or processes in everyday tasks; and
2. to test virtual IMT systems and processes in scenario based exercises.
Similar to traditional IMTs, virtual IMT effectiveness will improve through familiarisation and continual improvement. Whilst virtual IMTs comes with significant technical and interpersonal challenges, but it may be unavoidable, so preparation is essential.
Although Covid‑19 restrictions are currently relaxing, we can still transfer learnings around virtual IMTs into an improved Australian model. It may be that the most effective IMT for the Australian context is a hybrid of both traditional and virtual arrangements.
OSRL continues to work in this space, so look out for an Addendum to our Incident Management Handbook to reflect the learnings on standing up a virtual IMT.