Best Practices for the New Year – Situation Reporting

Situation reports or SitReps have a great deal of importance in conveying information on an incident or event to a variety of stakeholders.  Having worked for many years as a Planning Section Chief in a State EOC and county and local EOCs and command posts on a variety of incidents and events; well structured, well written, and relevant SitReps have become a bugaboo of mine.  SitReps are intended to provide a snapshot of a common operating picture for stakeholders involved in the incident or event.  Creation of a SitRep should be viewed as a process, similar to incident action planning.

The information contained in a SitRep provides them with the information they need to know to perform their duties in support of the incident.  Keep in mind that stakeholders may not be involved in the operations or support of an incident but still need to have awareness as they may be impacted.  A series of SitReps can also contribute greatly to the historical record of the incident or event.

Looking into the New Year and toward your next incident and event, I’ve provided some things I’ve learned along the way which can bake your situation reporting more effective and meaningful.

Defining the Audience

In the first step to building a benchmark SitRep, regular readers of my blog will recognize one of my common themes – identifying needs.  Just as we do in training, we need to be aware of who are audience is what their needs are.  The primary purpose of a SitRep is to meet the information needs of your audience.

Who are the stakeholders that see your SitReps?  Are they operators, decision makers, or executives?  Generally, based on these three categories, here is the information they need:

Operators.  These are the folks who are ‘boots on ground’ getting the work done.  While they might love to see detail of what is going on throughout the incident or event, they don’t NEED this information as it can, in fact, be simply distracting to them.  Very rarely are SitReps geared toward this audience as you want them tactically focused on the tasks they are assigned to. Usually a brief incident summary satisfies their limited need to have a bigger picture of what is occurring.  Those who are managing them should be providing them with the information they need to know.

Decision makers.  Decision makers are found at many levels throughout an incident structure.  They may be task force or strike team leaders, division or group supervisors, facility managers, branch directors, section chiefs, functional managers of agencies or departments, or others functioning in similar capacities.  Decision makers have the greatest functional information need.  The information being provided to this group strongly supports their role in the incident, the planning and management of the incident, and the safety of personnel.  The information provided to them should have some degree of operational detail and should include information on hazards and safety issues as well as potential problem areas.

Executives.  This category includes chief elected officials, high level appointed officials, and organizations with ancillary involvement.  Executives are of course decision makers in their own right, but aren’t often involved at the level of detail of the decision makers discussed above.  Generally executives don’t require a great degree of operational detail, but they do like numbers and statistics.  Like the decision makers, they also need to be aware of potential pitfalls on the horizon as they need the information to make high level decisions to address the problem or be prepared to deal with the outcomes politically.  You may have to be the most aware and response of the needs of this audience as they may have different information needs during an incident.

Where the Information Comes From

We know from communications training that information we convey must be timely, relevant, and accurate – this must be the litmus test by which you judge all SitRep content.  The Planning Section should be obtaining information from all relevant stakeholders.  They need an overview of what has, is, and will be happening operationally (and the outcomes/impacts of these operations) as well as all support activities and external influences (such as weather, crowd activities, etc.).  Information from field operations should come, ideally, from individuals functioning in the field for the sole purpose of obtaining and providing information (field observers).  Often times, however, we don’t have this luxury and have to obtain information directly from field-level managers themselves.  Caution should be exercised with the information you receive from them, or anyone really, as some will alter information based upon their own agendas or bias.  Information should also be obtained from support services, usually found through your Logistics section.

In an EOC environment we will also usually obtain information from the agencies and functions represented there.  These agencies are also audiences for the SitRep so they get to see first-hand how their situational awareness contributes to a common operating picture.  You may also be obtaining a lot of raw data.  If it’s relevant, track this data and report on it, ensuring that it is meaningful to your audience.  Leverage the talents of GIS to display this information in usable and meaningful formats.  As the years have progressed, I’ve seen SitReps with less narrative and more GIS.

In obtaining information, I’ve found that a form or script can be of the greatest help.  It ensures not only consistency in the information being gathered but it also ensures that nothing is missed.  Often those reporting information will have a particular perspective which will be the focus of their reporting.  Asking additional questions encourages them to think more broadly.  Be sure to get your information sources on a firm schedule so you are not waiting on their information.  Late information from your sources will result in a late or incomplete SitRep.  Personnel may need regular reminders to compile and submit their situational information.  Also be sure to give GIS plenty of time to do their work.  Set a publication time and work backwards to establish reporting and work schedules for everyone involved.

Remember – timely, relevant, and accurate.  While a short summary of previous actions may be important to provide context, it is not necessary to provide a long historical narrative.  Be sure to report on the outcomes or effectiveness of actions.  This detail of progress is important for a situation report.  As far as accuracy, work to verify information to the greatest practical extent, especially any information that is speculative.  Inaccurate information can be career ending.

Organizing the Information

Typically you only have time to assemble one SitRep, despite having to serve multiple audiences.  Inclusion of an executive summary is then a very appropriate means of providing an area within the SitRep for those audiences which need a shorter overview.  After the executive summary you have a great deal of flexibility on the structure and formatting of the document, but keep things organized and largely consistent from report to report.  Often times SitReps are organized the way we organize the incident – have you organized functionally or geographically?  It may be a mix of the two, so organize your SitRep based upon that.  Simply find a format that makes sense.  I like to arrange information that applies to everyone first, such as a weather forecast.  You may have information such as statistical tables or GIS products which are best provided as attachments so they don’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Keep in mind that this is NOT a document providing operational direction – that comes from an Incident Action Plan (IAP).  Therefore, all associated operational information such as safety matters, communication plans, etc. should be included in the IAP and generally not replicated in the SitRep.  Those who need access to that operational information should be also receiving copies of the IAP.  A short synapsis of the SitRep can be provided in the IAP to add context and to provide information for operators but should not be replicated to any great extent.

Conclusion

Creating a situation report takes a lot of time and patience and is not something to be hurried, but their publication is something counted on so they must adhere to a schedule.  It is very much a ‘garbage in – garbage out’ activity, so the quality of the information coming in is extremely important.  A large incident or event may require a largely staffed Situation Unit to collect and organize information.  SitReps should always be reviewed before being finalized.  It is a professional report so attention should be paid to things like grammar and spelling.

So what have you learned from your experiences in assembling situation reports?

Need help building SitRep templates and standard operating guidelines?  Emergency Preparedness Solutions can help!  www.epsllc.biz

© 2015 – Timothy Riecker

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