Florida's virtual JIC creates a safe and effective work environment for communications responders

In Brief

In order to facilitate timely communications and ensure safety of responders, the Florida Department of Health developed a virtual Joint Information Center (JIC). Key to its success in saving agency resources were its use of existing capacity on their emergency notification system, open source software redundancy, easy global accessibility, provision of necessary communications resources in one place, and responsiveness to staff needs.

Background

During emergencies, public health and/or emergency management staff establish a Joint Information Center (JIC) to track important information and communicate it to the public. Organizations operating under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) are required to use a JIC as a means of centralizing timely communication and public information personnel from all organizations involved in a response. A survey conducted with Florida Department of Health (FDOH) Public Information Officers (PIOs) found that more than 75% of respondents relied on the JIC being located at a physical site and had no experience with a virtual center.

Specific issues
  • Inability to establish a central JIC. Because a JIC must be established in a location known and accessible to all necessary communications staff, it is susceptible to any disaster affecting geography, transportation, or infrastructure.
  • Staff health risks. If an outbreak of contagious disease were to occur, gathering all information staff in one location could expose them to risk of disease. Likewise, if isolation and/or quarantine were implemented, communicators would not be able to access the JIC and fulfill their responsibilities.
The practice

FDOH developed a virtual JIC based on the needs and preferences of communications staff and suitable to various types of emergency response.

In May 2011, FDOH developed a virtual JIC that was secure, cost-efficient, and customizable to the department's needs.

The virtual JIC, housed in the Florida Department of Health Emergency Notification System (FDENS), gives staff access to media kits and other resources, while providing a threaded discussion forum for two-way communication and online areas in which staff can collaborate on projects.

Some benefits to organizing communications in this way were immediately noticeable and included:

  • No workflow disruption. The virtual JIC operated at the same level of functionality as a physical JIC. Staff could gather information and communicate to the public in a timely manner while safely working remotely.
  • No set-up time. Because materials and collaborative workspace for the virtual JIC are always online, staff do not need to consider time and logistics for setting up a physical JIC. Even if a physical JIC were required, staff could use the virtual space until the site was established.
  • Cost-efficient, yet secure. Most of the virtual JIC's functionality is provided through the FDENS site, or, in the event of a system failure, through the use of free or low-cost open source software, including Google apps, DropBox, or Collanos Workplace as a redundant backup.
What made this practice possible?
  • Responsiveness to stated needs. The virtual JIC was built to conform to the stated needs of Public Information Officers (PIOs) and other communications staff. In an FDOH survey, more than 80% of Florida PIOs wanted a virtual JIC to contain media kits and other resources addressing a variety of hazards. More than half wanted the ability to access the JIC within or outside the FDOH firewall via the use of a password.
  • Choice of technology. FDENS and open source online software give communicators access to materials and workspaces in the event that FDOH servers fail, the FDOH firewall prohibits access, or a large-scale response requires larger access speeds and capacity. Storage of audio and video files on a YouTube channel saves space and increases access speed on the FDOH server.
Results
  • Allows for faster setup. The virtual JIC has been used in FDOH's bioterrorism and natural disaster response exercises, and in comparison to a physical JIC, has cut activation time by more than 98%.
  • Provides easier access to information. The secure online environment of the virtual JIC can be accessed at any time from anywhere in the world.
  • Saves time and resources. By using a virtual workspace, FDOH does not need to incur costs for establishing and using a physical JIC during an emergency. The virtual JIC project earned a 2012 Florida Davis Productivity Award for saving $744,000 and 2,400 staff hours each year during response activities.

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